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.
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
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 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
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
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
"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.