A three-toed sloth dangled from a tree outside the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Punta Culebra Nature Center earlier this week, when I dropped by for a visit.
The long-haired hippie was on the move, too, slowly making its way along a branch. I like to think it was there to greet our group of 20 passengers making a field trip to the center during a week-long cruise aboard Le Bellot on a Smithsonian Journeys cruise.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute operates research facilties all over Panama, but this is the only one regularly open to the public, and the exhibits there give a glimpse into some important research that the organization is doing in Central America.
Panama is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It’s home to roughly 2,300 species of trees, 1,700 species of fish and 1,800 species of butterflies.
Trying to save Panama’s iconic amphibians
Some of the center’s most important work involves the country’s iconic frogs. Since the 1990s, a fungus that dries the skin of amphibians has decimated frog populations across the country. Through the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, scientists are creating a sort of “ark” collecting individuals and keeping them in tanks to protect them from the fungus.
A few of those frogs are on display at the center. I peered into a tank and got a glimpse of a Panamanian golden frog, which is now functionally extinct in the wild, tucked in some lime-colored leaves.
It’s not just frogs. Scientists at the institute studying humpback whales, which migrate off the coast, worked to convince authorities to create traffic lanes for ships, to lower the chances of whale-ship interactions. The solution, simple but effective, has reduced such interactions by 95 percent.
We spent some time in an interactive section of the facility, where we looked through microscopes and touched some whale bones. Outside, we watched green iguanas that live on the grounds and spotted more sloths, including a mother with its baby.
Visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Punta Culebra center
The center is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for residents and $8 for non-residents, $2 for children and retirees. For more information go here.