Unbeaten Path: Visiting Panama's Living Lab

Howler monkeys patrol the treetops at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, situated on an island in the Panama Canal.
Howler monkeys patrol the treetops at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, situated on an island in the Panama Canal. (By Christian Ziegler -- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

At the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, on an island in the Panama Canal, the experiments were running wild. A giant anteater was lumbering up the trunk of a ceibo tree, playing hide to a scientist's seek. An agouti, a rabbit-size rodent, had evaded a trap -- and a researcher's clutches -- leaving the bait for an unsuspecting spiny rat. Army ants were halting foot traffic as they hauled larvae home, and, high in the trees, howler monkeys were making faces and tossing branches at interlopers below.

How, I wondered while watching a light rainfall of sticks, does anyone get any work done here? Or, is this the work?

"Barro Colorado is the longest-studied piece of tropical real estate in the world," said Beth King, the institute's science interpreter. "It's not a park; it's a research island. It's like walking through a living lab."

To be sure, the Smithsonian "lab" is neither sterile nor controlled. It occupies a 3,707-acre island, part of the Barro Colorado Natural Monument, and is an active petri dish of mammals (93 species), birds (366), plants (1,368), amphibians and reptiles (90) and visiting scientists (up to 300 a year). The humid tropical forest has been barely touched by Homo sapiens; the man-made constructions include a small dock, a weather tower and a smattering of simple buildings. In this barely adulterated environment, international scholars can pursue their life's devotions: the foamy nests of tungara frogs, the night vision of bees, the dreams of sloths. In addition, a limited number of tourists (10 on weekdays, 20 on weekends) may visit, to hike, lunch and observe the resident brains and beasts.

"It's one thing to read about science but another to see it," said James C. Nieh, an associate professor of biology at the University of California at San Diego, who recently lived on the island while collecting data on the language of bees. "In this forest setting . . . you can understand better why it's interesting to study tropical biology."

In the early morning, I went to Gamboa Pier, 45 minutes north of Panama City, to catch the boat that carries workers and tour-takers to the institute. I shared the commute with tanned, fit men and women dressed in light khaki clothing, tall rubber boots and wide-brimmed hats. The workhorse vessel sped along Gatun Lake, passing vibrant green islands shaped like jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Where the land opened to the sea, I glimpsed massive cargo ships drifting by, their black hulks smudging the otherwise pristine landscape. About 30 minutes into the ride, Barro Colorado loomed into view, its dock and red-roofed structures making it look like a recluse's private sanctuary.

The Smithsonian's link to Barro Colorado dates to 1910, when President William Howard Taft asked the institute to assist in an environmental impact study concerning the construction of the Panama Canal. The island, which was designated a biological reserve in 1923, grew into a world-class field station for tropical research. Through the years, high-profile scientists have come to this ecologically diverse landmass to study evolution or disease-carrying mosquitoes, for example, or to test the resilience of certain materials, such as Kodak film, under extreme conditions. Congress designated the Smithsonian the administrator of the reserve in 1946, and when Panama gained control of the canal in 1999, the organization received permission to use the facility through at least 2019.

"For a century, this has been the central place where people studying the tropics go," King said. "A lot of guidebook information, like where do toucans make their home, was discovered on Barro Colorado."

My own biological training stopped after frog dissection. So I had to take King at her word when she said, "I smell howler monkeys," only minutes into our walk. However, with a little guidance, I could now clearly identify the monkeys' chorus: a deep, throaty baritone that reverberated through the forest. Yet, in this instance, scent plus sound did not add up to a sighting.

In many cases, it took a sharp eye to spot the animals. The thick forest, debris-strewn ground and pallid sunbeams create the perfect camouflage for creatures of varied shapes and hues. I nearly mistook an agouti tucking into lunch for a mound of dirt. Even the scientists sometimes struggle to locate their specimens.

"She's spent a lot of time sitting under trees looking for anteaters," King said as a young woman passed us, carrying a metal pole with a looped end and a determined expression.

"I can find them, but I can't catch them," the woman retorted, en route to a giant ceibo where an anteater recently had been detected.

Because the island is essentially an office, visitors are expected to respect the scientists and not interfere with their work or bombard them with questions. However, King said many of the researchers are eager to share their experiments with layfolk. A young Dutchman with an overstuffed backpack let us follow him into the brush to check on a trap. Swishing through sharp branches, he explained that he was part of a team studying the role agoutis play in forestation. So far, the team has trapped 29 of the critters, but not this time. A guileless rat had fallen for the coconut bait instead.

Before lunch, we tagged along with Meg Crofoot, a postdoctoral fellow at the institute who specializes in capuchin monkeys. She took us off-trail, into a thicket of trees many stories high. In the upper levels, a handful of howler monkeys watched us watching them. It was unnerving, as when a child or a dog stares intently at you. Crofoot said that was normal monkey behavior: We were in their domain, and they were simply checking us out. Forming a circle overhead, they scrunched their faces into ugly masks and started tossing sticks. "They are much less scared of you," Crofoot says. I could only imagine what they'd throw if they were frightened: an anteater?

On my way to the boat back to the mainland, I heard one last bellow from a howler monkey. Maybe one day, because of the Smithsonian scientists, I will read in a guidebook or magazine what it was saying.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute runs its Day Visit Program five times a week (no Mondays or Thursdays). The $70 fee includes round-trip boat ride from Gamboa Pier; interpretive tour and hike lasting up to three hours; and lunch. Reservations required. Info: 011-507-212-8951 or 011-507-212-8026, http://www.stri.org.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company