Of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI)

*Pour lire cet article en français

*This blog post was also published on the McGill NEO blog and on my Research Notes blog

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 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.

STRI PlatformA 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.

LIBRARYThe Earl S. Tupper Library holds over 69,000 volumes related to tropical sciences (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

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.

BOCASA view of one of the numerous coral reefs neighboring the Bocas Del Toro Research Station (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

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.

FORTUNA1The Fortuna Forest Reserve lets scientists work in a unique ecosystem… cloud forest (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

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).

FORTUNA2A clear night sky in Fortuna is a rare event, less than 30 days a year are rainless (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

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).

BATAmong all our activities in Gamboa, bat trapping was certainly one of the most interesting (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

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?

BCIA view of the main buildings on BCI island (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

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.

Nicolas Chatel-Launay


‘The Machandai’ chocolate has a taste that reminds me of the past’

In the community of Charagre in the district of Changuinola Bocas del Toro, exists a humble family that, has been devoted to the production of chocolate for three generations.

Mr. Lozada explained the production of chocolate from ‘Cacao” has been their livelihood that since the time of his grandparents. . However, even more than the preservation of tradition, what gives the family the most pride and distinction is that their cocoa plantations are based on an agroforestry-sustainable system. He explained that they had learned of this system of agriculture from their ancestors. The cocoa plantations are situated amongst other plants such as bananas, plantains, and trees used for wood, like cedro, caoba, etc. The use of agrochemicals products is avoided; therefore the chocolate is considered Organic. 

Mr. Orlando Lozada

Mr. Orlando Lozada Photo credit: Librada Atencio


As an alternative method to agrochemicals, monitoring is used for pest control on these plantations. For example, when small seedlings are monitored and a plague is suspected, the plant or just its leaves are eliminated. The fruit is also monitored and is removed if either the Phytophora and Monilia diseases are present. The latter is classified as an algae, which is extremely aggressive for cocoa beans, as it completely destroys the fruit.

Monilia disease

Monilia disease Photo credit: Librada Atencio


The Lozada family also uses organic compost from other sites as a sustainable resource. This is one of the ways that they use all the resources at their disposal, reducing expenses and increasing sustainability.

Currently the chocolate is sold under the label ‘Machandai’ which is a very meaningful name for the entire Bocas del Toro town and will be marketed by the ASAP (Association Silvo-Agropecueria), in which many Bocatoreños, including small farmers, engineers and doctors (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzM374DrS5A).

The Machandai name was selected because it refers to the railroad that existed for many years in that area and whose function was to transport dry goods (mainly bananas) and thousands of people. The railroad was key to the economy of the region of Bocas del Toro.

Demolition train of the banana transport railway, of the Bocas Fruit Company between Almirante and Changuinola with locomotive 817 (GE 32 tons). (Photo: Patrick Rudin)


The Machaindai, both in name and product, is a reminder of the rich history and agricultural traditions of the region.

By Anakena Castillo (Indicasat-aip)

Reflecting on a nest

Let us step out onto the front porch of the schoolhouse, it’s another beautiful day in Gamboa!

Front porch, Gamboa Schoolhouse, picture by Elise

Front porch, Gamboa Schoolhouse, picture by Elise

Say, what’s that?  Look up there!


See that clay colored robin up there, sitting on a nest?  Gosh, how cool!  This brown bird is the national bird of Costa Rica, chosen in part because it is common and familiar to the majority of the population.

It does seem unusually early for this species to start nesting, as previous studies in the area (over at Summit Gardens) found the species breeding from about late February to mid-June (Morton 1971, Dyrcz 1983). Still, let’s check the nest!

Eggs in the clay colored robin nest on Gamboa School House, picture by Elise

Eggs in the clay colored robin nest on Gamboa School House, picture by Elise

Why, it’s incubating!

(My feet never left the ground, this was all a matter of attaching things together to give me enough reach, safety was a top priority here)

Four eggs, which is in the range for the species although on the high end and a good deal higher than the modal clutch size in the tropics (2 eggs).  One egg looks a little small, if it survives to hatching, it may still wind up starving as smallest nestlings sometimes do…  Perhaps the fruiting trees provided sufficient resources for the parents or, perhaps, because we’re in a human-dominated area, there may be other food sources that these birds can count on (but IF food for adults sufficient for growing nestlings is another matter altogether).

It makes one wonder.

We live in a rapidly changing world. Even if temperatures don’t change rapidly in the tropics, rainfall patterns are expected to shift.  Morton (1971) suggested that high rates of nest predation during the rainy season drives these thrushes to breed in the dry season. Will those predators track changes in the rainfall regime?  Depending on the direction of change, it could go either way for these common birds.  What might happen for rarer (and thus potentially more vulnerable to extirpation) species if nest predation pressures change?

This nest is right here, on the Schoolhouse, right above the door where there’s frequent (but not necessarily predictable) human presence.  The human population on this is boiling, bubbling, burgeoning up past the 7 billion mark, predicted to race towards 8 billion by the next decade.  The tropics are predicted to experience dramatic growth in human population (with rapid and unplanned urban expansion occurring as a consequence). That’s going to make it (even more than it already is) very, very difficult to address big problems like climate change (and it really won’t be fixed JUST with individual action.  Do your best, do your part to help, but the commons are pretty tragic, huh?), urbanization, food security, etc.

Now, Gamboa sure isn’t a big city, but the habitat has been altered by and for human habitations (and, well, the giant canal with the gigantic boats going through right over there was a pretty major alteration to the area too…) and small towns can also alter wildlife populations. Avian populations in more urban habitats, where there are concentrated sources of food and potentially reduced rates of nest predation, may remain viable due to high rates of survival and higher numbers of offspring produced per female(Stracy and Robinson 2012). However urban areas may become ecological traps in which immigrants settle into lower quality habitat and face novel sources of mortality, such as from collisions with vehicles (Stracy and Robinson 2012).

The combination of climate change and urbanization may be just a bit too much instability for species to deal with, perhaps a breakdown of biotic interactions will occur when one species is less able to tolerate human-induced changes, perhaps populations persist in certain landscapes only because adults become sedentary once a territory is established even if they are unable to generate offspring, perhaps I’m thinking too much about one early-breeding pair of thrushes that are probably pretty tired of the fool with a camera on a stick pestering them for photos.



Dyrcz, A. 1983. Ibis 125: 287-304

Morton, ES. 1971. Science 171(3974):920-1

Stracey & Robinson. 2012. Journal of Avian Biology. 43:50-60.

A species by any other name (may be just as irrelevant)

When I was a bright-eyed, attentive freshman in my first biology survey course in college, I thought the definition of species was cut-and-dry with few exceptions. Species was the most basic unit of taxonomic structure, outlining individuals that, under natural conditions, could mate and rear viable offspring. Great, I thought, clapping metaphorical dust off my hands, let’s store this somewhere for an exam and not worry about it. Fast forward a bit: in the past few weeks, I’ve realized that I don’t understand the first thing about species or speciation, nor do I know if we’ll ever have an understanding that doesn’t involve a fair deal of hand-waving and/or philosophical reasoning. In this post, I’ll give an example of the species problem, and I promise nothing will be resolved.

Oscar Puebla’s lecture at Bocas del Toro considered reef-dwelling hamlet fish as models of adaptive radiation. Hamlet (Hypoplectrus spp) populations diverge in marine environments, where speciation within a local environment cannot be so easily attributed to geographical isolation. Though hamlets are similar in an ecological sense, they’ve radiated to give rise to a number of colorful phenotypes, somehow having reproductively isolated and branched off to form new species. Using RAD-seq, an inexpensive way of comparing genomes while skirting around the issue of not having a complete assembly, Puebla compared two species that rarely hybridized, but were able to produce viable offspring upon doing so. Perhaps to be expected, the divergence was ridiculously low, to a point that fancy statistics were required to pick out a lowly SNP that stood out as the only real difference between the two. And it was in a Hox gene. Not some master regulator transcription factor, just a developmental patterning gene that I probably learned about in that same class where they lied to me about what species meant. Could such outstanding phenotypic and behavioral divergence be attributed to a change in developmental patterning? No. I don’t think so. But these findings are by no means uninteresting; they point to much bigger questions we need to ask.

Okay, sure, the genomes aren’t complete, maybe the divergence is actually higher. Still, I am coming to terms with how poorly I understand the question of what makes two species distinct, at what point do two populations of organisms go from mating to hybridization to reproduction isolation? The non-mating rule, which I once held fast as unbreakable, is so commonly violated in natural settings, so scratch that one (even some ligers aren’t sterile, ya’ll). What level of divergence should we require before we say one species is not another, and when can we safely conclude that?


On the big connections

Since the IGERT – 2015 started, the big boss keep saying “it is important to make big connections, god dammit!”. Of course, he has not said it this way but he has always made clear the importance of making big connections, from ecology and evolution to social and environmental issues. However, the lectures that gringos and Latin American students attended to show that such connections are a big challenge to young and dinosaurs researchers. But why?

897a918834677201c3a4d7761a3ae5741d6780a9Well, we only have two eyes. In fact, our understanding and explanatory capacity decrease with each variable that is added in whatever system we want to elucidate. How salinity, temperature, and rainfall influence the life of estuarine organisms, for example? Only three variables in a system and I doubt anyone can easily give a reasonable explanation, even though we all might know they do have an influence. However, the issue here is exactly to understand how they interact to play a role in the life of these organisms; more importantly, we struggle to understand whether to which extent the influence of one of these factors change with variations in the two others. What about the niche of species? So many axes that potentially explain how species distribute and interact with others that one can get crazy! And if we integrate the niches of all species in a community to get to know what’s up over there? Dude, that is crazy.

continuum                    Another issue is that scientists who do not work in social or natural resource management are not interested in integrating their know-how in applied science. This is more an opinion than a fact. What I know is that many professors I had/have contact with in academia do not like applied science. The other way around is also true: “so, your research does not have any utility for people?” I have heard that a few times…Pure applied scientists also seem to not care or are really skeptical about basic, pure science. Anyways, things are connected not matter what.



Communication issues among scientists are another problem. They arise even between ecologists and evolutionary biologists so it is not a surprise it also occurs among basic and applied science researchers. One say “come around”, the other understands “camarón”. This one is to me the least of the problems, though:

2014-10-10-TGAG_491_Applied_Scienceit potentially can be fixed, while the others do not seem to be easily solved. If scientists are interested in answer the big questions that inevitably arise from THE big connections, they will be more likely to find an “oreo in the dark”, the big answers they are looking for if they are willing to fix such communication issues instead of giving up. It might be difficult though, with so many things to deal with…

I would like to end up this blog post with something cool or funny, but I do not have any. So I will just say that the more we try to make big connections the happier the big boss will be, the more beers we get, and the more we find the big answers we still do not have. In a world which is constantly changing, such answers are fundamental to change how we deal with our surroundings (environment and social interactions).


Connections are broader than expected

From the onset of this course it was made clear to us that its primary goal was to enable us to identify connections. The course topics spanned coexistence theory, life history theory, kin selection, natural selection, and sexual selection (to name a few) and our in-house and in-field lectures covered an equally diverse array of organisms. How are these theories united? How can we use concepts from one field to address questions in another? How can we integrate genomics with trait variation with species distributions? Essentially, how can our questions and methods replicate the same scaling up of complexity that we witness in nature? This course immersed us into highly complex systems, both physically and intellectually, and therefore provided the perfect environment to begin developing creative questions.

But as we now wrap up our studies, I can see that the connections we made in this course far exceeded those of an environmental nature (and I think this may have been an unspoken goal): We established connections within the scientific community.

Across biological disciplines, the scientific community is changing in the same direction: fields are getting too crowded, and competition is increasing at any accelerating rate. As many of my mentors have told me again and again, “we make too many PhDs”. We’re constantly confronted with the dogma that, through replacement, each PhD advisor will have only one PhD student that obtains a tenured faculty position. We have H-indices to quantify our scientific impact, an increasing quantity of articles that we’ll never have time to read, and the future of funding often appears grim. To put it bluntly, the competitive atmosphere of biology is scary.

In addition to generating novel questions and publishing elegant science, establishing connections within the community is critical. By connecting with members of the scientific community you increase your chances of success. One positive meeting may generate a collaboration, or give you an advocate on a search committee, or lead to a great postdoc opportunity.

This course has awarded us a tremendous opportunity to meet exceptional scientists in a low-stress environment. Most grad students meet researchers during the hustle and bustle of conferences, when everyone is struggling to combat psychological exhaustion with a never-ending drip of caffeine. We met researchers during non-chalant walks through the forest and followed up with casual conversations over dinner. Instead of the conference-style blitzkrieg of 30 talks in two days, we enjoyed 30 talks in three weeks, with time to digest and discuss the questions that really struck us. I feel fortunate to have met and connected with so many scientists on this trip, and to have been so warmly welcomed into the STRI community. I am sure this course will jump-start our careers in more ways than we could have expected.

-Tara E. Stewart-

A place we didn’t wind up going to…

Well, we didn’t actually get to Isla de Pajaros in Bocas del Toro.  It’s a pity, as it’s a pretty dang awesome place (I mean, birds!  Lots of birds!  It must be that system pride thing, but it’s acceptable because they’re also dinosaurs).  I’d planned a bit of a babble on the seabirds there, and it seemed an alright topic for a blog post.

So, check out this lovely rock!

Pictures taken by Elise

Pictures taken by Elise


At this site, we could’ve seen Red-billed tropicbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds (up close!), and brown boobies with babies (oh, come on!  Sure, birds get common names that sound mildly inappropriate, but…).

We have seen Magnificent Frigatebirds- perhaps the only seabird that is strongly sexually dimorphic (and, interestingly, females tend to breed every other year due to long post-hatching care of the young while males breed more frequently, thus they don’t really have that long-term pair bond thing going (seabirds tend to have lowish EPC rates and high fidelity (at least to the site))- fairly regularly during this course (they’re the big ones that sort of look like the mental image of a pterodactyl in flight (apparently they can remain aloft for days while they forage)).  These birds are rather well known for their kleptoparasitic behavior, attacking other seabirds and stealing prey, although it may not make up a significant portion of their diet (Vickery and Brooke 1994).  When not stealing hard-won fish from boobies (okay, fine, you are allowed to laugh it out…), frigatebirds feed on fish and squid at the surface (apparently a soggy frigatebird is a drowning frigatebird, they rarely deign to touch the waves).

Seabirds tend to live long (37+ year old frigatebirds for example, and that 63 year old Laysan Albatross (the oldest known bird in the Northern Hemisphere) that was still raising chicks on Midway), reach sexual maturity late, usually have a single egg (or siblicide that will bring the number of chicks down to one in the end), and extended parental care.  At least in some more temperate zone breeding seabirds, if forage fish drop below a certain abundance threshold (one-third of maximum biomass recorded) then seabird productivity is consistently reduced (Cury et al. 2011).  As these birds tend to breed once a year (or once every other year in some cases), reduced productivity isn’t something to sneeze at.

When you all next head back to visit Bocas del Toro, please swing by to Isla de Pajaros and say hi to the seabirds!


Wind or lose?

Today, the use of electric energy is more than a need. That’s why the search of alternative electricity generation is increasing in our country (I am talking about Panama), but how much more we will lose?

For example, a few years ago the construction of a wind farm was planned in Fortuna Forest Reserve. This Project wanted to install 75 wind-turbines (in two stages) able to generate 150 megawatts. According to the environmental impact study reviewed by the National Authority of Panama the localization of the wind farm was selected based on the wind power in the zone (14 m/s). But the study did not show the number of trees that would be felled.

Photo by Librada Atencio

Fortuna Forest Reserve      Photo by Librada Atencio


The Fortuna Forest Reserve has 19500 hectares of montane wet forest and the average temperature is 16º C. It is located at north of the province of Chiriqui, corregimiento of Gualaca. It forms part of the Mesomerican Corridor; with a huge diversity of plants (170 species/ha) and a diverse community of animals- most of them threatened species, including jaguar, tapir and puma.


Fortuna Forest




Big Tree

Studies have been carried out in this area showing the relevance of the preservation of the forest, from surveys of trees and animals to monitoring of the effects of climate change on a tropical forest.

I am not against the use of alternative ways to generate electricity as wind farms (because the energy is clean and cheap to produce, if we compare with the conventional forms to get electricity), but we need to pay attention to the places selected for the construction of such huge structures. In the case of Fortuna Reserve, the wind-turbines would also have a severe impact on the capacity to generate hydropower.


¡Gracias por leer!/ Thanks for reading!

-Librada Atencio-



External links





System Pride

Most scientists will tell you that their study system is the best study system. If they use a model system, their system is the best because it’s easy to bring to the lab, it’s appropriate for a broad array of questions, and it already has decades of research built around it. If they use a non-model system, it’s perfect because it adds to our understanding of global diversity/processes, it represents an open niche for one to make their name, and it may be more likely to reveal novel discoveries. But the degree to which a study system is defended and justified varies greatly across systems, and it seems as though system pride often increases as a function of distance from humans.

System Pride

 The invertebrate biologists go bonkers for their barnacles.


 The plant ecologists take pride in their perennials.


 And the soil biologists smile at the stratification of the soil pit they’ll push you into if you dis their soil.


And there is an awful lot of system pride among the parasitologists, who are constantly defending their work because of the disgust that’s so attached to the term “parasite”. We study the “abusers of life”- the reviled alien creatures that live in guts, tissue, and feces. A cheetah may kill an antelope instantly (forever ridding its prey of true love, happiness, and reproductive success) while the lowliest tapeworm may only take a few bites. But – let’s face it – to most people that cheetah is way sexier.

parasite cheetah

Due in part to their system pride, parasitologists have recently begun to ask an important question: what role do parasites play in ecosystem function, and how are parasites important components of biodiversity? And recently the BBC did a piece on just this question, asking:

“What would happen if all the parasites disappeared?”

You should definitely read the article for yourself if you get the chance. The author, Lucy Jones, interviewed a number of eminent parasite ecologists, including Andres Gomez, Kevin Lafferty (who we met in Bocas), Jaap de Roode, Levi Morran, and Luis Zaman. And the piece quickly became an interesting thought experiment, covering everything from human health, to population regulation, to niche partitioning. One scientist even posited that, in the absence of host-parasite red queen dynamics, sex would disappear!!!

The moral of the BBC story was that, without the tremendous diversity of parasitic interactions, our world would change drastically and probably for the worst. And I certainly believe that to be true. But is that really unique to the disappearance of parasites? It seems the complete disappearance of any group of organisms would cause fundamental changes in the way our ecosystems work. Try to imagine a world without vertebrates, a world without invertebrates, a world without plants, or… a world without soil.


System pride may sometimes seem silly or even annoying, but it is integral to the progress of biology. It is developed through a deep and intimate knowledge of a system- and without it, we would not have the understanding of each system’s importance to our world. We need the bird lovers, the fossil hunters, and the fungiphiles. We need people who are passionate about different units of biodiversity, as well as the connections that link them.


Comparing Agua Salud and BCI

Yesterday (17/1/15) we visited the Agua Salud Project. Agua Salud is an experimental forest alongside the canal where researchers are studying forest dynamics and hydrology. While Jefferson Hall was giving us a tour of the area I was struck by the differences between Agua Salud and Barro Colorado Island, both in terms of methodology and scientific impetus. Agua Salud is designed to study how the Canal Zone can be managed in a way that is beneficial to humans and the environment, as well as how forests change over time. BCI is used as a study area to intimately understand how organisms interact on one island. It demonstrates how different motivations can affect what questions scientists ask and how we try to answer those questions.

One of the major goals of the Agua Salud Project is to study how vegetation can be used to control water dynamics in the Panama Canal. The idea is that forested areas will absorb water during the rainy season, which will help to prevent the canal from flooding. Forested areas also have the potential to facilitate the release of water during the dry season, which can help fill the canal when water is more limited. Together, these processes are known as the “sponge effect” and are driven by soil properties and evapotranspiration. Just a few years ago a severe flood threatened to demolish the dams that control the canals water level, a disaster that would have implications for the global economy and cost Panama a lot of money to fix. Experiments at Agua Salud are looking at what species of trees can be grown along the Canal Zone that will facilitate the sponge effect while also providing other benefits to the community. Most of the trees that are being examined will be sustainably harvested and sold as timber. If reforestation can be shown to be an economically feasible venture, then people will have an incentive to invest in reforesting much of the area. This sort of experiment differs markedly from much of the work we have seen at Barro Colorado Island. At BCI, experimental manipulations are usually prohibited and work is being done to answer questions about maintenance of diversity, animal behavior, and any number of biological processes. To me, both of these experiments are fascinating and relevant. It is interesting to think about the motivation behind these different questions and how the balance between them might switch in the future.

Not all work at Agua Salud is centered on management practices and some experiments seek to answer questions similar to those being examined on BCI. In addition to studying the effects of timber farms on hydrology, experiments are also being conducted to measure dynamics of forest succession across the Agua Salud forest. This is done by setting up many plots across the island and monitoring the relative success of trees grouped into categories ranging from early to late successional. Researchers are looking at how nutrient availability, specifically nitrogen, affects forest succession. These questions are similar to some of the questions that are being looked at in one 50ha plot on BCI, where researchers have measured and mapped every single tree greater than 1cm in diameter over the past 30 years, allowing them to look at forest dynamics with incredible spatial resolution. At Agua Salud, Jefferson Hall explained that they chose to look at more plots with less resolution so that they could control for heterogeneity across the landscape. I think that it is important to think about the tradeoffs between these two approaches and how they contrast and compliment each other. This is definitely relevant to us young scientists as we design our own research projects to carry out over the next few months.