for National Geographic News
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 tropicsfrom 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 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 dataeverything 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.
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