Annette Aiello, more about an entomologist with the Smithsonian, recipe has provided me with the following excellent information concerning the caterpillar we found in the Pelliciera forest of Peninsula Valiente (see June 22 post).
“My guess is that your spectacular caterpillar belongs to the moth family Sphingidae, the sphinx moths, which include the well-known ‘tomato horn worm.’ Several sphingid genera are snake mimics, and in most of the cases I’ve seen so far, it is the ventral surface of the body that is displayed to resemble a snake. You can see that in the attached photograph of a species of Hemeroplanes. The head, mostly hidden, forms the blunt nose of the snake, then behind that you see the ventral surface of the thorax with its three pairs of true legs folded against the body, and the large, dark, false eyes (that can be opened and closed with blood pressure) on the sides of the third thoracic segment.
“Continuing back, you see the first three pairs of false legs (prologs), which are the large black structures on the ventral surface of the abdomen. The larva is holding on to the substrate with its fourth pair of prologs. In contrast, your caterpillar presents its dorsal surface during the display. The only record I can find of a similar caterpillar is Pholus labruscae, shown figure d, plate xiii of Miles Moss (1912) publication “On the Sphingidae of Peru,” Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 20(2): 73-134. Moss describes the final stage larva as ‘Remarkably snake-like, either end appearing as the head of a snake.’ He reports that the caterpillar eats members of the grape family (Vitaceae).”
John Christy, a fiddler crab expert I met in Panama (more about his work in a later post), adds the following comment:
“Kennedy – that is an amazing (!!) caterpillar, complete with liverwort-like patterning. It would seem to be highly specialized. You may well have something new. I wonder if the pattern mimics a particular snake? A quick google search produced Liophis cobellus as a “mangrove snake” of South America. It is a colubrid and looks vaguely like the caterpillar.”
Here’s a picture of the snake John referred to. Though not restricted to mangroves, it frequents mangrove forests, feeding on frogs, geckos and fish.
White smoke swirls around a man who is shoveling soil onto a perfect conical mound. He shovels and then pats down the black peat, nurse
working his way round the mound. The wind changes and blots him from view for a few moments, then he reappears, still shoveling and patting.
He is a carbonero, a charcoal maker, and he is sealing up the ventilation holes in an earth kiln, lit just hours ago. The mound will smoulder for six days, and when it is opened the chunks of mangrove timber inside will have been transformed into charcoal.
The work is happening near a town called Chame, 50 km south-west of Panama City. In this region many rivers spill into the Pacific and the coast is thick with mangroves. The majority of people here depend on mangroves. They earn a living by cutting mangrove poles for construction or converting the timber into charcoal, and they sustain themselves by fishing and collecting shellfish from the mangrove forests.
In 2004, Panama’s environmental authority (ANAM) became concerned about pressure on the mangrove resource. Three hundred families in the region were found to depend on mangroves for their livelihood. At least 100 charcoal kilns were in operation, each consuming 15 to 20 mangrove trees per month. Pole cutters were taking 100 trees per month.
“The forest could not support so many people cutting so much,” ANAM’s José Berdiales told me.
With financial backing from the International Tropical Timber Organisation, ANAM began a project to manage and conserve 4000 ha of mangroves in the Chame region. Some areas were placed off limits to cutting, some were slated for replanting, and some were to be used in agroforestry.
Now, five years later, the project is in full swing. Near the charcoal mounds, I saw a small nursery of young mangrove seedlings. Reforestation began in 2005, and the resulting stands are already more than two metres tall.
Many of the initiatives have been implemented by Juliana Chavarria, a young ANAM staff member who explained some of the challenges to me.
“Some of the people weren’t happy to have any restrictions placed upon them,” she said. “They believe the mangroves will never end.” Juliana realized she needed to find ways to create a win-win outcome for the communities and their forests. For communities, the “win” that would have the biggest impact was more money in the pocket.
One pilot scheme that has shown great promise has been the production and marketing of “eco-charcoal.” Ordinary charcoal sells for a pittance. Carboneros get $2 for a 35 lb sack from a distributor who on-sells the product to restaurants and other users in Panama City. Juliana negotiated with a supermarket chain and found that the same sack of charcoal would sell for $13 if it were repackaged in 8 lb lots. “Everyone benefits,” Juliana said. The carboneros get more money, the supermarket stocks a quality product and the consumer has the satisfaction of supporting a sustainable harvest.
The new product, developed with just one of the Chame communities, is about to be launched, and if successful will be rolled out to four other communities in the area.
The Chame project is Panama’s first mangrove conservation effort. But mangrove protection is by no means the norm in Panama, as the next few days would show.