Based out of the Boca del Toro region of Panama, I spent the last week finding and photographing poison dart frogs, sloths, tropical birds, and tropicbirds (this last one is an actual species). The islands associated with the Bocas del Toro archipelago are some of the most diverse tropical islands in the Western Hemisphere. The Smithsonian calls this place the Galapagos of the Caribbean. And for damn good reason. Basically you had a landscape once firmly connected with itself. Then the seas rose. Valleys became flooded. Tall hills and mountain tops became islands. Animals become disconnected from the rest of their tribes. One big gene pool became many little gene ponds. Genetic mutations become dominant traits. The founder affect reigns supreme. New species are created. Competition for resources becomes intense. New niches are filled. Adaptive radiation occurs. New species are created again.
This tiny little poison frog that science so awkwardly calls Oophaga pumilio is a perfect example of all this. The frog has a couple common names that you may have heard: Strawberry frog and blue jeans frog. The name blue jeans is pretty apt given that just about everywhere this little guy lives they come in red with a pair of blue legs. From Nicaragua to Costa Rica and most of Panama – so the entirety of this guys range – this what you get. But when you enter Bocas del Toro however, everything changes. Suddenly you have frogs that are all red, all orange, all yellow, and all blue. You have orange frogs with big black dots and white bellies, and red frogs with little black dots and orange bellies. You have purple frogs. Frogs that are green on their back and yellow in the legs. You have 1980s leopard print colored frogs, and 1960s acid trip tie died frogs. Some frogs I don’t really know what color they are – as if Bob Ross paused for a moment from creating happy little trees and swirled together all the colors on his pallet and then flicked his brush at the dark canvas of the tropical rainforest splattering specs of a seemingly unlimited array of different colors across this landscape. Crayola doesn’t have shit on the colors of the Oophaga pumilio in Bocas del Toro. And this is the diversity of one little species of frog on these islands. Almost every year entirely new species of poison frogs are found here.
The image is dark and foreboding for a reason. THIS IS THE RAINFOREST! Ever been? Its not bright, open, and airy where these frogs live. They like it dark and wet. So when photographing this little guy in the tea cup mushroom, I had a choice to make. Do I set up multiple flashes, pop on the softboxes, and light up the world? Or, do I try to work with the scant amount of natural light available here, and judiciously work magic with a single off camera flash to give certain elements just a kiss of light – creating a photograph that resembles the forest floor of a multistoried rainforest that swirls around in my mind and imagination?
Imagination wins everytime.