A remote Panama island is home to incredible biodiversity and innovative research
Researchers at Utah State University are part of a multi-institutional project aiming to unravel the ecological enigmas surrounding plants, their fruits and the chemical mechanisms that facilitate seed dispersal. This collective effort is driven to comprehend the astounding diversity of chemicals plants produce.
Journeying to a remote island in Panama, UPR’s Colleen Meidt and News Director Sheri Quinn documented the quest of these scientists as they seek to investigate the secrets beyond the seeds.
Noelle Beckman is an associate professor in Biology and the Ecology Center at USU who studies plant ecology and seed dispersal. She uses chemistry and math as tools to understand how plants interact with predators and herbivores and compete for resources.
“One huge question in evolutionary ecology is why there's such a huge diversity of chemical compounds in plants. Our project is investigating that question. We propose that fruits might be the key," Beckman said.
Beckman is the lead principal investigator of a multi-institutional project supported by the National Science Foundation. This project is focused on seedscape ecology and aims to uncover the mysteries of why there is such a rich diversity of plant chemicals that have evolved.
Research for the project takes place at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Barro Colorado Island in Panama, a premiere study site for tropical biologists.
Joseph Wright is a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and co-principal investigator of the project. He commutes to the island from his home in the small town of Gamboa, a 40 minute boat ride.
“This is the best-studied tropical forest in the world ... more tree species in a single hectare in Western Amazonia then there are tree species in the eastern deciduous forest. So from the Mississippi, the Atlantic from Georgia, up into Canada, it's almost twice as many tree species in a single hectare in Western Amazon," Wright said. "And then you talk about microbial diversity, even now, global surveys and microbial diversity in the soil in these forests is orders of magnitude higher than anywhere else."
Barro Colorado Island, or BCI, was formed when engineers dammed the Chagres River in 1914 creating Lake Gatun. After the dam was built, rising lake waters covered a significant part of the existingtropical forest, but certain hilltops remained as islands in the middle of the lake. BCI is one of those islands. Accessible only by boat, it is one of the most heavily researched tropical forests in the world.
With funding from a National Science Foundation grant, Beckman sent UPR on a journey to BCI to cover their exciting research and what it is like to be immersed in their world.
News Director Sheri Quinn and Science Reporter Colleen Meidt, flew to Panama and shuttled to BCI. They traveled deep in the tropics from Logan, Utah to Panama City, Panama, taking a taxi from Panama City to Gamboa, and then the ferry to BCI.
The island, about the size of six square miles, can host up to about 50 researchers and staff in housing units. There is a dining hall and two research facilities overlooking the lake and Panama Canal.
Meals are served on a schedule three times a day. Here, researchers discuss their work over these meals and plan their trips into the field to collect samples and gather data. These trips are often strenuous and require rubber boots, long socks and bandanas.
Tropical regions like Panama experience two seasons: wet and dry. Fortunately, our trip to BCI took place in March, during the dry season, where temperatures hover between 80 and 90 degrees and 60-85% humidity.
One must walk up a steep hill when arriving to BCI to access most facilities at the station. The island is home to only one vehicle — a truck whose only job is to drive up this steep hill to deliver food and potable water to the dining hall and the occasional equipment delivery.
Around the facility on the island, buildings are connected with sidewalks and stairs. This area of BCI is well maintained from the undisturbed forest, which echoes sounds unrecognizable to those unfamiliar with the tropics.
Visitors can hardly see through this curtain of growth, as plants in the understory are under constant competition for light and space.
Everywhere we looked, there was a creature of some kind peeking its head from this curtain, whether it was one of the many coatis, members of the raccoon family looking for scraps around the dining hall, or agouti, large rodents grazing on the grass. No matter which direction, life was everywhere, even hundreds of feet above our heads, howling at the top of its lungs or slothing around.
Within the forest, designated trails travel in all directions, like a network of blood vessels branching off and connecting together. Many of the trees along the trails are tagged or flagged, evidence of just how intricately studied this forest is, cataloged and periodically measured.
As you trek deeper into the island, it is strongly advised to wear rubber boots and to separate clothes completely — ones that are treated with chemicals that repel pesky critters so tiny they are almost invisible to an untrained eye. The trails have cinder block steps embedded into them, all of which were carried and installed by hand up these steep hills. Although well shaded, the best way to describe how it feels to navigate through the island is like being in a hot sauna on a stair master.
Jerry Schneider, postdoctoral researcher at USU and key chemistry ecologist on this NSF seedscape project, greeted us at the island and guided us through the forest, showing us some of his favorite systems and plants.
"It's been protected from development or exploitation for ... over 100 years ... since being created as an island by the flooding of Lake Gatun and during the setting up of the Panama canal," Schneider said. "And even before it was set up as a protected area overseen by the Smithsonian, it and the surrounding forest have been protected as a watershed for that canal itself."
Listen for our next episode as we dive into the research underway to understand the complex interactions of fruiting plants and why it is suspected to give rise to thousands of chemicals.
This ongoing series is made possible by the support of this NSF project.