Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Last updated

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI, Spanish : Instituto Smithsonian de Investigaciones Tropicales) is located in Panama and is the only bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States. It is dedicated to understanding the past, present, and future of tropical ecosystems and their relevance to human welfare. STRI grew out of a small field station established in 1923 on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone to become one of the world's leading tropical research organizations. STRI's facilities provide for long-term ecological studies in the tropics and are used by some 1,200 visiting scientists from academic and research institutions around the world every year.



Barro Colorado Research Station Barro Colorado Research.JPG
Barro Colorado Research Station

Smithsonian scientists first came to Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914. The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Charles Doolittle Walcott, reached an agreement with Federico Boyd to conduct a biological inventory of the new Canal Zone in 1910, and this survey was subsequently extended to include all of Panama. Thanks largely to their efforts, the governor of the Canal Zone declared Barro Colorado Island (BCI) a biological reserve in 1923, [1] making it one of the earliest biological reserves in the Americas. [2] During the 1920s and 1930s BCI, in Gatun Lake, became an outdoor laboratory for scientists from U.S. universities and the Smithsonian Institution. By 1940, when BCI was designated the Canal Zone Biological Area (CZBA), more than 300 scientific publications had described the biota of BCI. In the Government Reorganization Act of 1946, BCI became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) was created in 1966. [1]

With the establishment of STRI, permanent staff scientists were hired and fellowship programs were initiated to support aspiring tropical biologists. The first director after the name change was Martin Humphrey Moynihan. [1] A strong relationship with the Republic of Panama was formalized in the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977, which gradually transferred control of the Canal Zone to Panama. The treaties created the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, which included BCI and five surrounding peninsulas, and granted STRI custody of the monument. Panama granted STRI International Mission status in 1985 and, in 1997, the nation extended STRI's custodianship of facilities beyond the culmination of the Panama Canal Treaties in 1999.

STRI's first director after the institute's establishment in 1966 was Martin Humphrey Moynihan. Geographer and scientist Charles F. Bennett, along with his wife, Anna Carole Bennett, participated in STRI during the 1960s, assisting in the organizing of the library, researching and collecting microclimate data, and studying neotropical forests. In 1966, Bennett became an honorary Research Associate of STRI. [1] A large collection of papers by STRI researchers at Barro Colorado Island was published as an anthology in 1982, The Ecology of a Tropical Rainforest. [3]

STRI has an average of 350 ongoing research projects and publishes more than 400 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals every year. [4]


STRI's research facilities allow staff scientists, fellows and visiting scientists to achieve their research objectives. Most of STRI's staff scientists reside in the tropics and are encouraged to pursue their own research priorities without geographic limitations. The continuity of their long-term programs enables in-depth investigations that attract an elite group of fellows and visitors. Active support for fellows and visitors leverages resources further and attracts more than 1,200 scientists to STRI each year.

Academic programs

STRI hosts 10-15 university field courses every year. Participating universities include Princeton, McGill, Northeastern, Wisconsin Green Bay, Yale, Harvard, Ohio State, Arizona State, Marquette, Texas A&M Butler, Cambridge, Dartmouth College and University of Vermont. STRI also runs an intensive field course for Panamanian and Central American undergraduates. Since 1965, STRI has supported some 5,500 fellows and interns of various academic levels, from undergraduate, master and PhD students, to postdoctoral and senior researchers.

Barro Colorado Nature Monument

The Barro Colorado Nature Monument includes the 16 km² Barro Colorado Island, which is covered with tropical forest and boasts a nearly intact mammal fauna. It also includes 40 km² of surrounding mainland peninsulas covered by forests in various stages of succession, serving as a site for manipulative field experiments. The monument adjoins Panama's 220 km² Soberania National Park.

With an unparalleled store of background information reflecting almost a century of research in a protected setting, Barro Colorado Island has become a major global center for tropical research.

Barro Colorado is open for public day visits, but advance reservations must be made. [5] [6]

Other research sites

Although STRI is based in Panama, research is conducted throughout the tropics. The Smithsonian's Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO) network (formerly CTFS, Center for Tropical Forest Science) uses standard study protocols to monitor more than 70 forest plots in 28 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The protocols were developed on BCI in the early 1980s. More than six million individual trees representing 12,000 species are being studied. [7]

STRI's Biological Diversity of Forest Fragments project created experimental forest fragments of 0.01, 0.1, and 1.0 km² to study the consequences of landscape transformation on forest integrity in the central Amazon region. STRI marine scientists are conducting a global survey of levels of genetic isolation in coral reef organisms.

Facilities in Panama City

STRI is headquartered at the Earl S. Tupper Research, Library and Conference Center in Ancón, Panama City. [8] STRI has other installations around Panama City including the Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology, a Canopy Access Crane system in the Parque Natural Metropolitano (with a sister crane in the San Lorenzo National Park on Panama's Caribbean slope), and the Naos Marine and Molecular Laboratories on the Amador Causeway. [9] The marine laboratory has a dock, wet lab and scientific diving office, facilitating research in the Gulf of Panama.

The causeway, which is at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is also home to STRI's visitor center, the Punta Culebra Nature Center, which is open year-round to the general public and school groups. [10]

Facilities elsewhere in Panama

STRI has laboratories in the town of Gamboa, which is abutted by Soberanía National Park, the Panama Canal and the Chagres River in central Panama. The Gamboa labs facilitate research on forest ecology, animal behavior, plant physiology, evolution and other disciplines. [11] Adjacent to Soberanía, STRI has the 700-hectare Panama Canal Watershed Experiment, which studies multiple land-use practices to determine their impact on hydrology, carbon storage and potential for reforestation. [12]

STRI has two Caribbean marine laboratories. One is the small facility of Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory near the city of Colón, at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. [13] The other is the Bocas del Toro Research Station, a modern marine laboratory on Isla Colón within one mile of downtown Bocas del Toro. The research station has a dock, dive locker and a fleet of small research vessels that provide access to mangrove, seagrass and coral reef ecosystems. [14]

The Fortuna Field Station provides access to montane forest in western Panama. [15]

STRI has a small field station is on the island of Coibita in Coiba National Park. The station provides access to the 500-km2 Coiba Island and extensive coral reef systems of the Eastern Tropical Pacific [16]

Related Research Articles

Barro Colorado Island

Barro Colorado Island (BCI) is located in the man-made Gatun Lake in the middle of the Panama Canal. The island was formed when the waters of the Chagres River were dammed to form the lake in 1913. When the waters rose, they covered a significant part of the existing tropical forest, but certain hilltops remained as islands in the middle of the lake. It has an area of 15.6 km2 (6.0 sq mi).

Bocas del Toro Province Province of Panama

Bocas del Toro (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈbokaz ðel ˈtoɾo]; meaning "Bull’s river mouths") is a province of Panama. Its area is 4,643.9 square kilometers, comprising the mainland and nine main islands. The province consists of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Bahía Almirante, Chiriquí Lagoon, and adjacent mainland. The capital is the city of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón. Other major cities or towns include Almirante and Changuinola. The province has a population of 125,461 as of 2010.

Gatun Lake freshwater Panamanian artificial lake

Gatun Lake is a large freshwater artificial lake to the south of Colón, Panama. It forms a major part of the Panama Canal, carrying ships 33 km (21 mi) of their transit across the Isthmus of Panama.

Alexander Graham Bell Fairchild was an American entomologist, and a member of the Fairchild family, descendants of Thomas Fairchild of Stratford, Connecticut and one of two grandsons of the scientist and inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, for whom he was named, and son of David Fairchild, a botanist and plant explorer.

Stephen P. Hubbell is an American ecologist on the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of the unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography (UNTB), which seeks to explain the diversity and relative abundance of species in ecological communities not by niche differences but by stochastic processes among ecologically equivalent species. Hubbell is also a senior staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama. He is also well known for tropical forest studies. In 1980, he and Robin Foster of the Field Museum in Chicago, launched the first of the 50 hectare forest dynamics studies on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. This plot became the flagship of a global network of large permanent forest dynamics plots, all following identical measurement protocols. This global network now has more than 40 plots in 22 tropical countries, and these plots contain more than 8000 tree species and 6 million individual trees that are tagged, mapped, and monitored long-term for growth, survival and recruitment. The Center for Tropical Forest Science coordinates research across global network of plots through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Since 2008, the program has expanded into the temperate zone, and is now known as the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory or SIGEO.

Martin Moynihan

Martin Humphrey Moynihan was a behavioral evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who studied under Ernst Mayr and Niko Tinbergen, and was a contemporary of Desmond Morris. He was the founding director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama.

Pedasí District District in Los Santos Province, Panama

Pedasí is one of five districts of the Los Santos Province, Panama.

The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), founded in 1963, is a non-profit consortium of over 50 universities and research institutions based in the United States, Latin America, and South Africa. OTS manages a network of ecological research stations in Costa Rica and South Africa. The North American Office is located on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina. OTS offers a variety of courses in Spanish and English for high school, university, and graduate students. Most of the coursework and research conducted at OTS stations focuses on tropical ecology, and the three research stations in Costa Rica are located in distinct ecoregions.

Elisabeth Kalko

Elisabeth Klara Viktoria Kalko was a German tropical scientist and ecologist working at the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Ulm.

Liquid Jungle Lab

The Liquid Jungle Lab (LJL) is a tropical marine research station on the island of Canales de Tierra on the western coast of Pacific Panamá along a primary marine biological corridor. The LJL research campus was completed in 2004 and is part of a private 3,500 hectare reserve composed of primary forest, mangroves, tide pools, and a rocky inter-tidal zone that transitions into fringing coral reefs.

The Bocas del Toro Research Station (BRS) is a field station of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) on Panama’s western Caribbean coast, is a platform for both marine and terrestrial biodiversity research. The station hosts a diverse group of scientists from more than 20 countries, every year.

Olga Francesca Linares was a Panamanian–American academic anthropologist and archaeologist, and senior staff scientist (emerita) at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, who have supported much of her research throughout her career. She is well known for her work on the cultural ecology of Panama, and more recently in the Casamance region of Southern Senegal. She is also concerned with the social organization of agrarian systems as well as the relationship between "ecology, political economy, migration and the changing dynamics of food production among rural peoples living in tropical regions".

<i>Platypodium elegans</i> Species of legume

Platypodium elegans or the graceful platypodium is a large leguminous tree found in the Neotropics that forms part of the forest canopy. It was first described by Julius Rudolph Theodor Vogel in 1837 and is the type species of the genus. The tree has been known to grow up to 30 metres in height and have a trunk with a diameter up to 1 m at breast height. Its trunk has large holes in it, sometimes making it possible to see through the trunk. The holes provide a habitat for giant damselflies and other insects both when alive and once the tree has died and fallen over. It has compound leaves each of which is made up of 10–20 leaflets. Three new chemical compounds have been isolated from the leaves and they form part of the diet of several monkeys and the squirrel Sciurus ingrami. In Panama it flowers from April to June, the flowers contain only four ovules, but normally only one of these reaches maturity forming a winged seed pod around 10 cm long and weighing 2 g. During the dry season around a year after the flowers are fertilised, the seeds are dispersed by the wind and the tree loses it leaves. The seeds are eaten by agoutis and by bruchid beetle larvae. The majority of seedlings are killed by damping off fungi in the first few months of growth, with seedlings that grow nearer the parent trees being more likely to die. The seedlings are relatively unable to survive in deep shade compared to other species in the same habitat. Various epiphytes are known to grow on P. elegans with the cactus Epiphyllum phyllanthus being the most abundant in Panama. Despite having holes in its trunk which should encourage debris and seeds to collect, hemiepiphytes are relatively uncommon, meaning that animals are not attracted to it to feed and then defecate. It has no known uses in traditional medicine and although it can be used for timber, the wood is of poor quality.

Marine Exhibition Center of Punta Culebra

The Punta Culebra Nature Center is a visitor center located in Panama City, on one of the islands connected by the Amador Causeway. It is operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, also located in Panamá. The center focuses mainly on [[marine and terrestrial science and education, conservation and interpretation of marine coastal environments in the tropics. Among its attractions, the Fabulous Frogs of Panama, a touch tank with equinoderms and turtles are some of the exhibits found in Punta Culebra. A trail to a stretch of tropical dry forest is also part of the attractions where free roaming animals such as raccoons, sloths, green iguanas and beautiful birds and butterflies can be found.

Ira Rubinoff

Ira Rubinoff is an American marine biologist and was a former director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Fausto Bocanegra is a Colombian biologist.

James Zetek (1886–1959) was an American entomologist and authority on the natural history of Panama.

Egbert Giles Leigh, Jr. is an evolutionary ecologist who spends much of his time studying tropical ecosystems. He is a researcher for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and is well known for the work he has done on Barro Colorado Island. He is a US citizen, but has resided at the Smithsonian in Panama for nearly 50 years. Along with studies on Barro Colorado Island, Leigh is also known for the research he has done related to the Isthmus of Panama and its historical significance on the evolution of South American species.

Annette A. Aiello is an American zoologist, botanical entomologist, and professor. She develops academic activities at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

<i>Sericopelma embrithes</i> Species of spider

Sericopelma embrithes is a tarantula that is native to Panama. To date, only specimens from Barro Colorado Island have been studied. Like other tarantulas, it is relatively large compared to other spiders. It can grow up to 59 mm long, including its chelicerae. S. embrithes is data deficient according to the IUCN.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Oral history interview with Charles F. Bennett, Jr., and Anna Carole Bennett, 1975". Smithsonian Institution Archives. 1975. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  2. Eric Jackson (August 5, 2010). "100 years of the Smithsonian's relationship with Panama". The Panama News. Archived from the original on June 14, 2011. Retrieved August 8, 2010.
  3. P. J. Edwards (1985). "Leigh, E.G., Jr., Rand, A. S. & Windsor D. M. (Eds) The Ecology of a Tropical Forest (review)". Journal of Ecology. 73 (1): 368. doi:10.2307/2259799. JSTOR   2259799.
  4. "About Us". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-12-19. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  5. "Visit Us at Barro Colorado". Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  6. "Isla Barro Colorado Review | The Canal and Central Panama | Fodor's Travel Guides". Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  7. "ForestGEO". ForestGEO. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  8. "Earl S. Tupper Center". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-30. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  9. "STRI Facilities". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-12. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  10. "Punta Culebra Nature Center". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-21. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  11. "Gamboa Laboratories". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-24. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  12. "Agua Salud - Panama Canal Watershed Experiment". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-22. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  13. "Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-27. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  14. "Bocas del Toro Research Station". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-28. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  15. "Fortuna Field Station". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2017-05-23. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  16. "Coibita Island". Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. 2016-10-19. Retrieved 2018-06-25.

Further reading

The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them, Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 328 pp. A popular-science book by Elizabeth Royte which describes the researchers' life on Barro Colorado Island.

Coexistence: The Ecology and Evolution of Tropical Biodiversity, Oxford University Press, 2016. 275 pp. This book by Jan Sapp chronicles the history of tropical research as pioneered by Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues in Panama.

Coordinates: 8°57′45″N79°33′09″W / 8.9624308°N 79.5525621°W / 8.9624308; -79.5525621