Station Update – 2020

What’s New At ITEC


Enrique and daughter Itzel at giant Zapatero tree

ITEC’s 24th year in operation was an unusual one, to be sure.  As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were forced to shut down the field station from the middle of March to the end of December and probably well beyond.  Because Panama was in lockdown mode with no travel allowed, national or international, ITEC had no one visiting the station during this time period.  Despite this, we at the station have persevered, stayed healthy, and were able to accomplish many of our mandates including teaching courses, hosting groups and conducting conservation programs. 

Academic Activities


  Al and his coral reef students at ITEC reef

Only two ITEC courses took place in 2020, Coral Reef Ecology and Tropical Forest and Canopy Ecology.  The coral reef course was taught by Al Beulig of New College of Florida as he has been doing for the entire existence of ITEC! 

Bill and climbers at Joe’s tree

Al’s course involved SCUBA and they spent a great deal of time conducting research projects on area coral reefs.  The forest and canopy ecology course had two instructors, Pete Lahanas of ITEC and Northeastern University, and Bill Maher of Climbers Coalition.  Pete presented the forest ecology section while Bill taught students how to access the forest canopy for research.  The students spent a lot of time in the forest and conducted their own independent research projects.

TRE students with a leaf-litter snake            Students present their independent research


SWBA heading to ITEC

We had a number of group visitors in the early part of the year, before the Covid outbreak.  Arriving in January was Students Without Borders led by David and Matty Fehr.  Originating from British Columbia, Canada, the SWBA group stayed for about a week and engaged in just about everything you can do in Bocas, including day and night hikes in the forest, spelunking in caves, snorkeling on area reefs, climbing into the canopy and catching caimans on the Soropta Canal.  This was SWBA’s 20th visit to ITEC. 

SWBA group in Bocas


Matty with students and brown vine snake

Next to visit the station was the Monteverde Institute of Costa Rica led by Dinia Santamaría and Sofia Arce Flores who brought students from Mount Holyoke College.  In addition to the usual snorkels on our coral reefs and interpretive hikes in the rain forest, they also visited a  fish cooperative in Almirante.  This co-op is operated exclusively by women who are interested in reducing the harmful affect of invasive lion fish in our area.

NEU group at butterfly tour in Boquete

Simultaneous with Monteverde Institute’s presences at the station was the visit by Northeastern University’s Tropical Terrestrial Ecology course as part of the Three Seas Program.  Led by Pete Lahanas, this group visited on two separate days and took part in a series of lectures and field exercises including night-time

NEU students in cloud forest at La Fortuna

forest hikes, visit to La Gruta cave and early morning birding activities at the STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) station in Bocas. Later, this group moved on to the STRI station in the cloud forest of La Fortuna, and then to Boquete where they hiked the waterfall trail at Bajo Mono, participated in coffee and butterfly tours, and climbed to the top of the 11,000 foot Baru volcano.  

Ohio University group in Agouti Cave

In March we were visited by a group from Ohio University led by Willem Roosenburg, a herpetologist. The group engaged in a myriad of activities both on the reef and in the forest, and also participated in an Orëba chocolate tour as well as a nighttime search for caiman on the

Willem with toothy friend

Soropta canal.  While the Ohio University group was at the station we had a visit from Osvaldo Jordan, the director of CREHO, and his colleagues who are doing conservation work in the San San Pond Sock Preserve just across the bay from ITEC.  CREHO (Centro Regional para el Hemisferio Occidental) is a member of RAMSAR, the international wetlands conservation organization.  One of Osvaldo’s colleagues, Josue Ortega, gave an engaging talk on a large mammal survey that he has been conducting

Josue giving a talk on his large mammal research

all over Panama.  His camera traps have recorded jaguars, pumas, tapirs, bush dogs, peccaries, and a myriad of other mammal and bird species.  Additionally, we investigated a tapir carcass discovered along the Soropta Canal and Josue believes it to be a jaguar kill.  Osvaldo can be reached at:


NEU students swim at Gangliones                       Ohio University group at ITEC


CREHO group at ITEC                                                        Eyelash viper on canal


Steve and his students on Soropota Canal in 2019

We had several other visitors in the early part of the year, including Steve Scrimshaw of the Cambridge School of Weston.  Steve was doing his normal pre-trip reconnaissance that he does prior to bringing his high school group to Panama.  The Covid-19 plague hit Panama about the time he arrived but fortunately, Steve was able to fly back to Massachusetts on the day before all international flights were stopped.  

Greg Homel

Later we received a visit from Lucas Bell of Bocas and Greg Homel, a professional bird guide from California and author of dozens of bird guides.  They spent some time birding at the station and Greg suggested that he may want to bring groups to ITEC (following Covid, of course).  Greg can be reached at:  

Clarence climbing Joe’s Tree at ITEC

We had two other visitors including Clarence Fouche, formerly of Virginia Intermont College, and Amy and Robert Winkler from Texas.  Clarence, a long-time ITECer began bringing students to ITEC in 1999 and has continued his support of our organization ever since.  Amy’s visit was definitely a blast from the past.  Amy (then

Amy and Robert on Starfish Beach

Amy Franklin) was one of my volunteers in the leatherback sea turtle program in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, in 1996!  I was then directing the project for the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (now called Sea Turtle Conservancy).  Fast forward 24 years and we were spending a great afternoon on Starfish Beach.


Construction Projects

New dining room cabinet

Due to the lack of funds there were no major construction projects taking place at ITEC in 2020.  However, there were quite a few minor projects and lots of repairs to station infrastructure, including the building of a new back porch for the kitchen, various walkways, germination shed, boot storage area, etc.  One nice addition was the new cabinet in the dining

Pete and Tippy with newly painted ITEC 1

area where electronics and DVDs are stored.  The ugly green box is gone, and in its place, a tall shiny wooden cabinet.  A new ladder was also built for the dock next to the coral reef; someone stole the aluminum one purchased last year (see our 2019 update).  While not technically a construction project, we had our old boat (ITEC 1) sanded and painted.  She looks like new!  With all of the upkeep and maintenance, the field station too never looked better.

ITEC field station

Conservation Efforts


2020 TRE course conducting plant biodiversity study at FMB

Our desire to restore forest in the upland areas of Finca Maribella (FMB) was instigated by two converging factors.  First, a need to bring back the original rainforest ecosystem and its biodiversity, and second, to offset carbon expenditures of the S/Y Acadia.  After conducting an investigation into the nature and quality of the upland forest (see our 2019 update), we discovered that the forests at the finca were not very biodiverse but rather, composed of pioneering, early successional and introduced invasive plants such as white cane and Boston fern.   In conjunction with our effort to help mitigate the affect of atmospheric carbon by sequestering it in trees, ITEC received a one-year grant from The Ocean Foundation ( to help offset costs of the forest restoration project.  By working to accomplish both goals, the forest ecosystem will be restored along with its original biodiversity and carbon storage capability. 


Building the shade house tree nursery

The Acadia Forest Restoration project was initiated with the building of a shade house tree nursery at the ITEC field station.  This structure was constructed with renewable Guadua bamboo covered with 20% shade cloth and completed in June 2019.  The shade house measures 20 feet by 70 feet and is capable of holding approximately 5000 tree seedlings.


Avery and Angelei working in shade house

During the first two months of the year we were lucky to have three volunteers/interns helping with the forest restoration project.  These included Avery Young of Colorado, Angelei Star of Hawaii and Sierra Petters of British Columbia, Canada.  Each of the volunteers worked at ITEC for a month and were instrumental in jump-starting the forest restoration project. Collecting seeds and seedlings from the forests, the volunteers amassed over 1000 seedlings of a variety of species for the project. 

Sierra planting seeds in ITEC’s shade house

Then Covid-19 came to Panama.  For much of the time period of the project (mid-March to end of October), the entire country of Panama was on lockdown with no national or international travel permitted.  Thus, six of our volunteers and project manager originating from the U.S., Canada and Spain, were unable to participate in the project.  About 95% of the project was carried out by just three people, Pete Lahanas, Enrique Dixon and Leonor Ceballos.  Despite travel restrictions, we managed to visit the forest restoration site once or twice per week during our allowed days and continued to plant trees up to the end of December when lockdown was reinstated in Panama. 


Enrique collecting mahogany seeds

We had planned to purchase a fair number of seedlings from area nurseries near Changuinola and David.  But because Panama was not allowing local travel, we concentrated on collecting seeds and seedlings from area forests.  This was a slow process and made more so by our lack of botanical expertise.  However, with the help a variety of books, published papers, websites and even the folks at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, we were able identify to species most of the seeds and seedlings we collected. 

Leo digging up forest seedlings

Collecting seeds and seedlings from a tropical rain forest is not like doing so in a temperate forest where virtually all species reproduce at about the same time.  In tropical forests, each species has its particular season for producing fruit (or do so randomly as with fig trees) which meant waiting months for certain desirable species.  But we persevered and were able to find and germinate some excellent canopy species such as mahogany (Sweitenia macrophylla), almendro, (Dipteryx oleifera), kapok (Ceiba pentandra) and fig (Ficus insipida), a keystone species.  Our choice of trees was not restricted to canopy species.  Our intent was to duplicate the composition and structure of a natural lowland tropical rainforest ecosystem and therefore, we collected and established a large variety of tree types including understory, sub-canopy, canopy and emergent species.


Soil mix used for seeds and seedlings

The germination of seeds and the planting of seedlings took place in the germination shed and shade house.  Soil was prepared by mixing equal amounts of area soil, sand, tierra negra (local black potting soil) and compost.  Seeds were planted in gemination trays and then transplanted into

Pentaclethra macroloba seeds germinating

successively larger containers (along with seedlings taken directly from the forest) until they were large enough to be planted at the forest restoration site.

As much as possible, an effort was made to use of recycled containers such as Tetra Pac® milk, juice and wine boxes, plastic soda bottles and other plastic containers.  Presently, there are about 4000 seedlings of 80+ species growing in the shade house.


Shade house interior and repurposed containers


Designating area to be restored

In January, 2020, a section of approximately 10 acres (4 hectares) was selected in an upland area of FMB.  The plot chosen was heavily grown to several pioneering and invasive species such as white cane (Gynerium sagittatum), and they required removal.

Enrique giving instructions to the macheteros

 In May, three local men were hired to cut the cane along with most of the other pioneer plants in order to provide sun to the transplanted tree seedlings.  Prior to preparing the plot, desirable trees were identified and tagged with biodegradable orange flagging alerting the workers not to remove them. 


Enrique and Itzel plant trees at Finca Maribella

In an attempt to mimic natural forests, the seedlings were planted in a random array 6-9 feet (2-3 meters) apart.  Each tree received a wired survey flag detailing the species and date planted as well as other data.  Planting continued once or twice per week from the beginning of May until the end of

Monitoring tree seedlings at FMB

December.   Enrique’s daughter, Itzel helped one day and together with her dad, planted over 100 trees.  By the end of the first season, we had planted nearly 2000 tree seedlings representing over 70 species.  The trees will be monitored every three months to asses mortality and growth rates.  In the coming year, we hope to plant 2500 trees in the next plot at the finca.


Shade House Critters

Normally we have a section in the newsletter reporting on rare and interesting animals we’ve seen and photographed during the year.  This year it’s all about the shade house.   The shade house has become an “ecosystem” and has attracted a wide range of animals including herbivores and predators.  Here is a sampling of just some of the critters we’ve encountered there.

Grants and Donations


Mitsubishi Corporation for the Americas.  ITEC has applied for an additional grant to aid in the forest restoration project.  The grant application was presented to the Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas (MCFA). Our proposal was made in the areas of biodiversity conservation and environmental education.  We are seeking $15,000.00 per year for the next four years.  The proposal was submitted in an effort to expand and diversify the restoration project at FMB as well as to enlarge our environmental education program to include schools in the villages of Tierra Oscura and Buena Esperanza.  The two schools lie on either side of the Acadia Forest Restoration site at FMB.  

Barid’s tapir on Soropta Canal, San San Pond Sak Preserve

United Nations Development Program (UNDP).  A “Citizen Scientist” project proposal was submitted that promotes appreciation among the indigenous Ngöbe for the importance and value of the 40,000-acre San San Pond Sak Preserve and the biodiversity it protects.  The preserve is just across the bay from ITEC and is home to jaguars, tapirs, manatees, peccaries, and umbrella birds, and includes one of the largest sea turtle nesting beaches in Panama. The application will be implemented by the (UNDP) through the Global Environment Facility (GEF) via the Small Grants Programme (SGP).  We are applying for a one-year grant of $20,000.00 in association with CREHO (mentioned above) who will oversee the project. That’s a lot of acronyms!  


The Ocean Foundation (TOF).  After receiving the report on our progress and success of the one-year grant received from them in 2020, TOF made the decision to continue to help fund the Acadia Forest Restoration project on a multi-year basis.  ITEC will receive $10,000.00 per year for the next four years in order to complete our restoration project on the remaining 40 acres of FMB.  

Call for Donations

Like many organizations, ITEC has been seriously impacted by the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Our organization has had zero income in 2020 from early March to the present.  Fortunately, ITEC did have some savings and was able to pay rents and wages as well as up-keep at the field station during this difficult time period.  However, the situation looks a bit worse for at least the beginning of the coming year, and perhaps for the entire year.  We are therefore in serious need of help from our friends and colleagues in order to make it through 2021.  We all know that the Covid problem will pass, but whether it takes ITEC with it or we survive to 2022 depends on all of us.  The station infrastructure has been kept in excellent shape, the faculty and staff are healthy, and we are all willing and excited to get back to our mission of providing field courses in tropical ecology, hosting academic programs, providing a venue for research in tropical marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and continuing our conservation efforts with regard to our Local Environmental Education Program and the Acadia Forest Restoration project.  Any level of support that you can provide would be immensely appreciated.

Acknowledgements.  We would like to thank the following individuals who provided their time, expertise, gifts or monetary donations thus far in 2020, including Mark and Rachel Rohr, Al Beulig, Bill Maher, Leonor Ceballos, Rob and Alison Sawyer and David Zimmerman.  

How You Can Help ITEC!

Ways to Contribute ITEC is seeking donations to offset the cost of maintaining the ITEC field station over the next year.  We are also seeking help (and partners) in continuing our forest restoration project at Finca Maribella.  As this is a grant-funded project, we have the obligation to continue it during these difficult times.  If you are considering making a sizable donation, please contact ITEC for ways to help directly.  Donations may be large or small; everything helps.  Donations by check are welcome and there are several ways that you can make a donation with a credit card.  Remember, ITEC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization so your donation is tax deductible.  

ITEC Web Site  Just click on the Donate to ITEC button in the side bar and continue from there. This will lead you to a PayPal page where a credit card donation can be made.  You can also download a form to accompany your check.

Amazon Smile ( is another way to help ITEC achieve its funding goals.  This program allows you to designate a charity and Amazon donates a small portion of your purchase price to ITEC but does not increase your purchase cost.  Choose Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation as your charitable organization recipient and Amazon will do the rest.  Remember us when you’re holiday shopping!

Facebook now also allows you to make a donation to non-profits such as ITEC.  Visit the ITEC Facebook site at the top of our home Facebook page, sign in and click on “Donate”.  This will lead you through several steps ending in a location that will allow you to make a credit card donation.

Finally, PayPal has a new program that allows folks to make donations to non-profits directly through their website.  Tuesday, November 27 is Giving Tuesday when donations to charities are matched by foundations.  Paypal will add 1% to any donation made!  Go to for details!

Thanks Everyone!


Rainbow at Finca Maribella