Panama Canal Island a Paradise For Tropical Research

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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 localities.

"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.

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