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When I tell friends that I conduct research at the Smithsonian, most think immediately of Washington. Fellow students and I are currently enrolled in a tropical biology field course at the Smithsonian… in Panamá, not on the Potomac shoreline! So let’s make things clear with a quick overview (i.e. publicity shpiel) of STRI, one of the world’s flagships of tropical research.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is a community of researchers and scholars interested in the tropics. It is part of the Smithsonian Institution network and hosts 40 permanent scientists, 400 support staff and 1,400 visiting scientists and students. My colleagues and I, all graduate students of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Instituto de Investigaciones Científicas y Servicios de Alta Tecnología (INDICASAT) and McGill University’s NEO program, are part of this community.
Together, we seek to understand the tropics, in all their complexity, and merge our diverse areas of expertise to do so. According to STRI’s Scientist Emeritus, Egbert Leigh Jr., most of STRI’s research can be grouped under 12 broad areas. First, we seek to contrast and compare two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, and understand how they came to be so different. We try to accumulate as much data as possible on the recent past, to understand what is happening today in both the human and natural worlds. We seek to understand the distant past through archaeology, and learn how our world came to be. We try to uncover why and how individuals diverge within a species to give rise to more species. We try to unravel the mysteries of mutualism, or why some species collaborate with each other while others prefer to cheat. We study social behaviour in animals, but also in humans within the Central American context. We want to understand what natural selection favors and why some traits make it to the next generation while others do not. We study the factors regulating populations of living organisms and the inner workings of food webs. We look at how species (humans included) cope with extremes (light, shade, drought, floods, lousy soils, etc.). We try to understand how so many species can coexist in a single place (900 species of birds in Panamá and around 300 tree species in 50 hectares of forest). We are definitely interested by a lingering question… why so many tropical trees (and why is their identification such a hellish job)? Finally, we want to get a global picture of tropical systems by unravelling the interdependencies that make ecosystems go-round.
Enough about questions, we need answers! Good research is backed by good infrastructure. Luckily for us, you can’t really beat STRI. We have access to 13 research facilities across the Isthmus of Panamá and here’s a very brief description of each.
A map of all STRI research facilities in Panamá (Credit: STRI, http://stri.si.edu/reu/english/why_panama.php).
1) Earl S. Tupper Research, Library and Conference Center
This set of buildings hosts most of the administrative units, a score of laboratories equipped for all kinds of research, a herbarium, an insect collection and a library comprising over 69,000 volumes centered on tropical sciences. The old and rare books section is to die for… if you like getting your hands on the drawings of 17th to 19th century explorers.
2) Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology (CTPA)
If you dig fossils, that’s the place you want to be. Specialized in geology, geography and archaeology, scientists working here try to unravel the distant past, from giant (and thankfully extinct) snake species to the processes that explain why North and South America became one land mass three million years ago. Scientists from CTPA are currently using the Canal expansion project as a way to dig further into Panama’s past.
3) NAOS Island Laboratories
Located at the Pacific entrance of the Canal, this research facility has a state of the art molecular and genetics laboratory. It also has all you need to keep oceanic critters alive for research. People here specialise in Pacific oceanography and paleontology.
4) Galeta Point Marine Laboratory
NAOS’s counterpart, this research facility is located at the Caribbean entrance of the Canal. It is best known for research on the effects of oil spills and on mangrove systems.
5) Bocas Del Toro Research Station
Located in the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago, this station hosts scientists who work on coral reefs, lagoon systems and lowland tropical forests. As it is located on the Caribbean side, in the middle of a cultural melting pot between Asia, Africa and the Americas, it is also a research hub on human sociality.
6) Rancheria Island
Located on a Pacific Island, this research station is in the middle of the Eastern Pacific Ocean’s largest concentration of coral reefs. It is the Pacific counterpart of Bocas Del Toro.
7) Punta Culebra Nature Center
Located on a Pacific Island, this center focuses on public awareness and outreach. Scientists try to test education strategies in order to better transmit knowledge to the coming generations.
8) Fortuna Field Station
Fortuna Forest Reserve is 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) up in the mountains and lets scientists study a particularly interesting tropical ecosystem… a cloud forest. I can tell you that the sun is rare out there, and it’s constantly wet. Some areas of the reserve receive 12 meters of rain a year (and have less than 30 rain-free days yearly).
9) Agua Salud
This project, located within the Panamá Canal watershed covers 300,000 hectares. Scientists involved in this long-term study try to test the best reforestation strategies and how different techniques can be used to store carbon, control devastating floods, or improve soil fertility… all without banning agriculture. People here try to get to an optimal land-use strategy for the tropics.
10) Forest Canopy Access Systems
People at STRI are all smart. But some have exceptionally smart ideas. Two construction cranes were permanently installed in the rainforest on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides so that scientists could easily access the forest canopy. Wonder how we could get this close to a mommy sloth and its baby in the posts from Scott, Librada and Flor? Yup, we were in a crane.
11) Gamboa Campus
Here we are! this is the main base our group used for the Tropical Biology Field Course 2015. Gamboa Campus is located at the dead center of the Panamá Canal, and has a suite of laboratories. Also, a lot of specialized research happens here. There is a system of “pods” to grow plants in different temperature and atmospheric conditions to unravel the effects climate change might have in the tropics. There are flight cages that bats call home and where their behaviour is finely analyzed. And there is Pipeline road, a well-known spot for anyone interested in birds (See Elise’s post on the IGERT-NEO blog).
12) Barro Colorado Nature Monument (BCI)
The Crown Jewel! Barro Colorado is an island, surrounded by three peninsulas, all protected by the Panamanian government and the Smithsonian Institution. Only research can go on here. With its 5,400 hectares, it is the oldest STRI facility, first occupied in 1924. The island itself is a no-touch zone. You can measure and observe, but you can’t change anything. The peninsulas are used for experiments, as in… what happens if you kill all lianas in a forest? Do the trees grow better? Or again, what happens if you change the nutrient regimes by dumping tons of fertilisers?
13) Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS)
Located on BCI Island and founded in 1980, this 50 hectares forest plot gave us the most precious data set ever collected in tropical biology. Every single tree stem larger than 1 cm (there are roughly 200,000 of them), is identified to species, measured, and recensused every five years. The same goes for lianas, and many groups of shrubs. We also have precise soil composition data all over the plot. We have mammal, bird and insect inventories for the area. Many mammals and birds even have radio collars; we can track their every movement in the forest. Basically, we can have lots of fun with lots of data. Not only is the 50-hectare plot an awesome dataset, it had children. CTFS plots are now all over the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. People there collect data in the same manner, using the same protocol. This way, we can compare forests through space and through time, precisely, individual by individual, all over the world. Imagine what questions you can explore with that.
So here we are! This was a small overview of what we do, and where we do it. STRI is composed of biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and specialists of other fields trying to answer one question. What makes the tropics tick? And if you’re jealous, well don’t be. You are welcome to join in this adventure.