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Isla de Barro Colorado - Panama

A visit to Barro Colorado offers the opportunity to discover the splendor of a humid tropical forest.

Barro Colorado, the largest forested island in the Panama Canal waterway, is part of the Barro Colorado Nature Monument (BCNM) and is the site of an internationally recognized biological research station.

Download "A Visit to Barro Colorado Nature Monument" to learn more about your visit.

Once a mountain top where howler monkeys roamed, the lush island of Barro Colorado in the middle of the Panama Canal, is now populated by scientists at work for the Smithsonian Institution's Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

The tropical forest on the island is one of the most intensively studied preserves on the planet. The island's 3,700 acres (1,500 hectares) of tropical rainforest are a biological reserve that also includes five surrounding peninsulas on the Panama mainland.

Scientists at Barro Colorado study many aspects of the tropics—from animal mimicry and camouflage; to the exchange of gases between forest canopy and the atmosphere; to theatened coral reef species; to the genetic diversity of species that once lived in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, but are now separated by the Isthmus of Panama.

Barro Colorado Ceiba Tree -

Barro Colorado and other nearby islands were created during canal construction in the early 1900s when engineers dammed Panama's Chagras River to make Gatun Lake. The rising waters isolated a 476-foot (145-meter) peak never cultivated by humans. Though thousands of tankers and cruise ships nose through the Panama Canal, which divides North and South America and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, only the launch that shuttles scientists and a few visitors docks at Barro Colorado.

Since 1923, Barro Colorado has been dedicated exclusively to scientific research. The institute stewards a unique resource in this untouched rainforest, currently providing 40 scientists with a living laboratory in which to test their theories.

Using the Past to Predict the Future

Some of the most complex research at STRI delves into predicting the future of other tropical areas. STRI scientists model the future of the Amazon by forecasting the impact of development and deforestation.

"The goal of our research is to project the condition of Amazonian forests 20 to 25 years into the future," said William F. Laurance, a biologist at STRI who uses a type of geographic mapping computer software known as GIS to analyze complex environmental, demographic, and other related data. "The basic idea of our models is to use the past to predict the future," he said.

In 2001, the institute released research based on two GIS models which incorporated 61 layers of environmental data—everything from forest cover to infrastructure projects like railroads, gas, and power lines. The report underscored the potentially devastating impacts on tropical forests of development projects planned by the Brazilian government at the time.

"Our results were very disturbing," said Laurance. "Both the so-called 'optimistic' and 'non-optimistic' models suggested striking increases in forest loss, degradation, and fragmentation over the next two decades."

The research sparked a major international controversy over the Brazilian government's plans, and appears to have stalled one program in particular: Avanca Brasil, an ambitious plan for accelerated infrastructure development. The plan received particular scrutiny at the time by the news media and Brazil's congress and debate on its likely impact on the Amazon continues today, according to Laurance.

Barro Colorado Spider Monkey -

Meanwhile, research on other topics continues apace at STRI. Dave Roubik, a staff entomologist, presently studies the impact invading African honey bees have in the Americas and on pollinating bee communities in the tropics, among other topics.

In Panama and Borneo, Roubik studied pollinators in the rainforest canopy. His conclusions helped to establish why and when bees forage where they do and how bees function in the pollination of forest plants. He also examines the relationships of bees and certain flowers over time and in different localities.

"I recently provided the first clear evidence that the El Niño climatic events have a direct, positive benefit to tropical moist forests by increasing pollinator populations," said Roubik. Through the agency of honeybee pollination services, which rejuvenate the forest through pollen dispersal between flowers on different plants, new genetically diverse seeds and seedlings grow.

The Tropical Mosaic

The tropical forest on Barro Colorado offers scientists a unique environment to test various hypotheses. Allen Herre, a STRI staff scientist, uses the tropical environment for research on fungi. "Plants are not just plants, but rather mosaic or chimeric entities. They consist of plant material and are also completely shot through with fungi in the roots in the stems and in the leaves."

Herre is uncovering the identities of these fungi. His early research indicates that they can dramatically affect survival and growth of the host. "Their effects range from beneficial to clearly pathogenic," Herre said. "This is an extremely exciting area because all sorts of accepted wisdoms are about to be neither accepted nor wisdoms."

The island is refuge to various species of birds and mammals, including the elusive tapir and five monkey species. Roland Kays, curator of mammals at New York State Museum in Albany, studied two nocturnal raccoon relatives, kinkajous and olingos, at STRI in Panama. His current project measuring ocelot and agouti predator/prey interactions using telemetry tracking is supported by the National Geographic Council for Research and Exploration.

As a rule, only researchers, administrators, interns and other program staff have access to the island. But the Smithsonian Institution does permits a limited number of paying guests to visit non-restricted areas of the research facility on day tours.



© Copyright 1997-2006 Todos los derechos reservados

Last Modified August 22, 2006

© Copyright 1997-2006 Todos los derechos reservados

Last Modified August 22, 2006