Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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Quarantine

Punta Culebra
during COVID-19

May 13, 2020

Panama City

While we stay home waiting for the pandemic to pass, the animals at the Nature Center wait patiently for the day when we can visit them again

While we are at home in quarantine, avoiding COVID-19, the frogs, turtles, corals and starfish at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s (STRI) facility located at the Punta Culebra Nature Center patiently wait for things to normalize, for children and adults to visit. And while they do, they must continue to be fed and have an adequate environment for their survival.

These tasks are still being carried out by the Punta Culebra site administrator, Javier Jara and the aquarist Renier Vargas. They are part of STRI's essential staff who continue working on reduced hours. Like them, there are the park rangers who protect the Barro Colorado Natural Monument and those in charge of taking care of the butterflies, the frogs at the conservation program and the plants in the greenhouses at Gamboa. This support safeguards any active study that has been put on hold during the pandemic.

Focused on the frog terrariums, Javier Jara has developed an automated system that releases live insects at certain times.
On the days that he has to change the water in ponds and aquariums, Renier Vargas must make sure to coincide with the high tide.

In the case of Javier and Renier, their mission has been limited to caring for the animals that live in the Center and any necessary maintenance work. And while they've both been working for the Smithsonian for decades, being alone with the animals feels strange. Without their co-workers or the frequent visits from school groups or tourists, any small unexpected noise makes them jump.

“There are animals jumping, knocking things down. There are also a dozen black vultures that have made of Punta Culebra their home and make a lot of noise. I'm sort of getting used to it and I can do my job,” admits Javier, who was surprised at the beginning with the unexpected noises.

For Renier, working during the pandemic means being aware of the tidal cycles. He has to make sure to coincide with the high tide on the days that he has to change the water in ponds or aquariums.

“Before, I was here all day and coincided with the high tide. Now I must coordinate an earlier or later arrival to collect saltwater,” he says.

Javier, for his part, focuses on the terrariums at the frog exhibit. Given that some are nocturnal and feed at night when nobody is at the Center, he has developed an automated system that releases live insects at certain times. And since frogs are predatory, they only feed on moving insects.

"We have to take care of both the frogs and the insects they eat," explains Javier. "If we give them dead insects, they won't eat them."

And while they get creative at work, to ensure the animals remain healthy until the pandemic ends, both Javier and Renier, who have seen Punta Culebra grow through the years, patiently wait for the day when the Center can resume its mission to educate the new generations about the importance of science and nature.

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