Panamanian peats

In order to understand and appreciate the breadth and importance of the fieldwork carried out by members of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group, we welcome posts on this blog from anyone with a story to tell.  Here, Nick Girkin, a PhD student from the University of Nottingham, describes the fieldwork he carried out last year in the relatively understudied peatlands of Panama.

In January 2016 I started the second stage of my fieldwork in San San Pond Sak wetland in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama. During my first visit in 2015 I trialled a range of fieldwork techniques investigating how below-ground plant inputs, particularly plant roots and root release of exudates and oxygen, can regulate surface greenhouse gas emissions and the extent to which this differs between plants of contrasting physiologies (i.e. palms vs broadleaved evergreen trees). This time I had developed a range of experimental approaches including plans for in situ mesocosms to exclude roots and root inputs, phloem labelling with natural abundance and 13C labels and a 13CO2 labelling experiment. The results of this work are important in terms of broadening our understanding of how regulation of greenhouse gas emissions may differ between different plant groups, with implications across forested peatland ecosystems.

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Access to San San Pond Sak Wetland

The site itself is dominated by two plant species: Campnosperma panamensis, a broadleaved evergreen tree, and Raphia taedigera, a palm, and I aimed to assess whether differences in greenhouse gas fluxes between these species previously observed could be linked to differences in below ground release of root exudates, oxygen and decaying root material.

During both field campaigns I was based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute research station on Isla Colon, a short boat ride away from my field sites on the mainland. On sampling days I, together with Erick Brown my field guide, would take a boat across the short stretch of the Caribbean to reach the wetland, before a short 1 km trek through the swamp forest to the field sites. The first week was particularly long and laborious, involving clearing a trail to the field site, making and then installing mesocosms into the soil. The average day of fieldwork involved collecting surface gas samples from the mesocosms and measuring a range of soil properties known to regulate gas fluxes (e.g. the height of the water table). CO2 and CH4 fluxes from these sites broadly match those measured in South East Asian Peatlands (400 – 800 mg CO2 m2 h-1 and 0.1 – 2 mg CH4 m2 h-1).

Work at the station involved tending to transplanted Campnosperma, Raphia and Symphonia globulifera saplings which towards the end of my fieldwork I labelled with 13CO2 with the aim of tracing recent photoassimilates into plant tissues, the soil microbial community and the production of CH4 through microbial use of plant derived carbon.

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Reaching field sites in San San Pond Sak

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Happy World Wetlands Day!

Today is a day to celebrate and spread the word about our world’s wonderful wetlands.

Taken from the World Wetlands Day website.

On this day 46 years ago, the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar.  Since then, the 2nd February has marked the signing of this Ramsar Convention: “an international treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.

Wetlands are increasingly acknowledged for their importance in controlling the quality and quantity of water flowing across landscapes, as reflected by the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day: Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction.  They are also important for biodiversity conservation, for filtering pollutants from water supplies and of course our beloved peatlands are critical for sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon (in their intact form).

None of you peatland experts need to be told this though!  But there are many people out there who don’t understand how important bogs are.  Perhaps it’s time for a World Peatlands Day?

To celebrate the day and how peatland management has changed in the UK and Ireland over the last few generations, from predominantly extraction to conservation, here is a poem by Seamus Heaney:

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.




Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down




Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.




The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.




By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.




My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.




The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.




Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.