<p>A kinkajou’s pollen-dusted cheek tells of a late-night nectar binge in an <i>Ochroma</i>, or balsa, tree.<br> <br> <a href="http://www.naturphoto.de/">www.naturphoto.de</a></p>

A kinkajou’s pollen-dusted cheek tells of a late-night nectar binge in an Ochroma, or balsa, tree.

www.naturphoto.de

Open All Night

The balsa tree bursts into bloom at sunset during Panama’s dry season, feeding a kaleidoscope of species.

Club Ochroma is the bar of choice on Barro Colorado Island, and I've arrived a little early for happy hour at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station. It's 3:45 in the afternoon, and I'm perched on a hundred-foot makeshift tower overlooking a scruffily majestic Ochroma pyramidale tree of about the same height. More commonly known as the balsa tree, Ochroma is found in many Latin American countries and is the source of the lightweight wood used to make snap-together model dinosaurs, Popsicle sticks, and Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki raft.

My noble specimen, however, is decidedly pre-lumber, and its branches sag with hundreds of blossoms at varying stages of ripeness: the buds that look like giant brown Q-tips, the unopened volutes with their creamy heads like swirls of soft-serve vanilla ice cream, and the mature flowers, which bloom at night and so are just now spreading wide their five fleshy petals to reveal a pollen-covered stamen surrounded by an inch-deep pool of rich, syrupy nectar. Wider, wider …

A crash of understory, a volley of yeeps, coos, and chutterings, and sure enough, it's the capuchins. Capuchin monkeys are famously shrewd and resourceful primates, the New World equivalent of chimpanzees. And when happy hour rolls around in Panama, you'd better believe their bellies are the first at the bar. Twenty-five of them arrive in conga lines to claim the opening rounds, the unencumbered adults and brash teenagers up front, the mothers with their clinging babies at the rear. Whatever their age or sex, the monkeys all have naked white faces, big humanlike ears, and the pursed, fretful expressions of old shopkeepers. A few stop to flash me an aggressive simian smile, but most get right down to business. They grab the edges of the ripe flowers, stick their heads inside, and with the hunched intensity of vampires, drink the flowers dry.

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