Jungle Prozac, my mom calls it. A potent drug, elements unknown. Possible components include the slurry of plant-produced volatile compounds infusing the air, the pleasing fractal dimensions of so many trees, adventure-induced hormone cascades, frequent exercise, a vegetative buffer from the anxieties of society, and a palm-framed view of Lake Gatun, Panama. Whatever its true composition, Jungle Prozac revived me.
The months before I arrived at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, Panama were undoubtedly the most challenging of my life. I was preparing for a triple-whammy: pass my qualifying exams (i.e. the exam you have to take to advance to PhD-dom), launch my first field season, and pack up my belongings for a permanent move to Germany – all within a month. Theoretically, my horizon was defined by boundless opportunity; the chance to run my own project, become the explorer I always wanted to be, and then join an incredible new research community in Germany. I was too preoccupied with the obstacles in front of me, however, to look ahead to those opportunities. When I finally got through it all and arrived on the island, I wasn’t sure I had the energy left to pull off my field season.
It did not take long for me to remember why I put myself through nearly three years of desks and classes to get to the field. Living at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is like having an entire rainforest playground right in your backyard. The actual research station is far more comfortable than most field sites: offices are air conditioned, trained cooks provide three meals a day, bedrooms are screened in, and there’s a lounge where residents come together to chat, play foosball, dance, and drink beer. But just five steps outside your room and you are in the thick of a long-preserved rainforest teeming with life. Every day for three months I will walk into the forest and see something new. Even better, the incredible diversity of scientists on the island means that there is almost always an expert around to ask about the crazy things that happen. I’ve already learned about how male orchid bees collect scents to impress females, how fungi in the soil build mutual relationships with tree roots, and how lightning strikes alter the forest ecology, to name just a few.
Because I study a nocturnal organism, the kinkajou (Potos flavus), I got to experience the rainforest at night, and the whole new set of challenges that comes with that. One of my goals was to watch individual kinkajous over the course of five hours and record as much of their behavior as I could. Ultimately, I hope to learn how kinkajous build mental maps of the canopy in order to navigate between fruiting trees. To do this, I would climb into the canopy using a special rope system, set up box traps (harmless traps that close behind the kinkajou after it enters to eat the banana inside), and put GPS collars on the ones that I caught. In addition to recording GPS coordinates, these collars emit a radio signal that can be tracked. Every night before dusk, I would set out with an antenna to pick up the signal and a wide range receiver to convert the radio frequency into an audible ping. By carefully moving the antenna around and listening to changes in ping volume, I could deduce the direction of the kinkajou I was tracking.
Along with my field assistant, Calixto, I would track the kinkajou to whatever tree-hole it had slept the day away in, wait for it to emerge, and then we were off to the races! Kinkajous are medium sized (about 2-4 kilograms) and incredibly dexterous climbers. Keeping up with them from the ground means moving at a near run through thick lianas (woody vines) and a dizzying array of thorny plants – flashlight in one hand, antenna in the other. Some nights we just couldn’t keep up. Learning to move quickly and naturally through the tangle became my favorite challenge; by the end of my field season I liked to envision myself as Aragorn, ducking and weaving through the dark of the night.
Nothing brought me more joy than the nights we kept up long enough to catch site of the kinkajou meeting up with a neighbor or hanging upside down by its tail and plucking fruit from the hardest-to-reach tree branches. Those nights, walking back to the research station tired, sweaty, covered in dirt, and beaming with success, I felt I was achieving something. I could feel my body hum along with the energy of all that life, sitting just through the fog of darkness, waiting to be discovered.
On one of these nights, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw two blinking lights through the trees. Some other scientists would put lights in the forest for their experiments, but I’d never seen two together, or any that blinked. I moved my flashlight, and the lights went out. I tapped Calixto and whispered, “eyes!” We crept closer, switching from white light to red, until a shape materialized in front of us. This time Calixto grabbed me.
“It’s a cat!”
We had run into an ocelot, sitting regally not ten meters away, swishing its tail while it watched us. It seemed unperturbed by our presence, blinking if we pointed light at it too directly, but otherwise looking calmly from us, around to the other side, and back to us. After ten minutes, perhaps fed up with our titillated whispers and crunching about as we tried to get a better view, the ocelot stood up, gave a last look, and wandered off.
It was the kind of unexpected moment that keeps me going. When I’m back in the office, grinding my way through grant writing and data analysis, I look to that ocelot. It reminds me why I do this work. In the field, there’s always something new just around the corner. Discovery is visceral and alive. Science, on the other hand is slow and plodding, but I know that discovery awaits there too, somewhere off in the darkness.
You can read more about ocelot research on Barro Colorado here: https://stri.si.edu/es/node/887
Alexander Vining is a fourth year Ph.D. Candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. In affiliation with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he studies the spatial memory and movement of frugivorous mammals (including the kinkajou) on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Alexander has a particular love for the elusive animals of the canopy and enjoys any research that brings him into the tree-tops.
All photos and videos taken by Alexander Vining.