Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, the only bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States, is dedicated to understanding biological diversity. What began in 1923 as small field station on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone has developed into one of the world's leading research institutions. STRI’s facilities provide a unique opportunity for long-term ecological studies in the tropics, and are used extensively by some 600 visiting scientists from academic and research institutions in the United States and around the world every year. The work of resident scientists has allowed STRI to better understand tropical habitats and has trained hundreds of tropical biologists.


The history of STRI began with the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s. Smithsonian scientists were asked to conduct a biological inventory of the new Canal Zone in 1910, and this survey was subsequently extended to include all of Panama. Thanks largely to their efforts, the Governor of the Canal Zone declared Barro Colorado Island (BCI) a biological reserve in 1923, making it one of the earliest biological reserves in the Americas. During the 1920s and 1930s BCI, in Gatun Lake, became an outdoor laboratory for scientists from US universities and the Smithsonian Institution. By 1940, more than 300 scientific publications described the biota of BCI, and in the "Government Reorganization Act of 1946", BCI became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution.

STRI as it is known today dates from the 1960s, when the first permanent staff scientists were hired and fellowship programs to support aspiring tropical biologists were initiated. A strong relationship with the Republic of Panama, STRI's host nation, was formalized in the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977. This relationship was renewed and extended in 1985 when Panama granted STRI the status of International Mission, and again in 1997 when the country offered custodianship of STRI facilities beyond the termination of the Panama Canal Treaties. STRI's relationship with the Republic of Panama continues to be of central importance.


STRI aims to offer research facilities that allow staff scientists, fellows, and visiting scientists to achieve their research objectives. The 38 staff scientists reside in the tropics and are encouraged to pursue their own research priorities without geographic limitations. The continuity of their long-term programs enables in-depth investigations that attract an elite group of fellows and visitors. Active support for fellows and visitors leverages resources further and attracts more than 600 scientists to STRI each year.

Fellows and other visitors

A range of programs supports fellows and visiting scientists. In 2002, STRI hosted eight university field courses (Princeton, McGill, University of Florida, Michigan State, Florida Atlantic, University of Panama, Organization for Tropical Studies and Union College). There were 406 research fellows at STRI between 1995 and 2001. Junior fellows often work closely with a senior scientist, while advanced fellows pursue their own research. Visiting investigators bring their own funding from sources other than STRI to pursue their research interests at STRI facilities. Staff and fellows are drawn from all nations in an open, global competition, while visiting scientists are drawn from leading research universities.

Barro Colorado

Access to the Barro Colorado Nature Monument: The Barro Colorado Nature Monument includes the 16 square kilometre Barro Colorado Island, which is covered with tropical forest and boasts a nearly intact mammal fauna. With an unparalleled store of background information reflecting 80 years of increasingly intense research in a protected setting, as well as accommodations and modern laboratories, BCI has long been a major center for tropical research. The Barro Colorado Nature Monument — which adjoins Panama's 220 km² Soberania National Park — also includes 40 km² of surrounding mainland peninsulas covered by forests in various stages of succession, serving as a site for manipulative field experiments.

Other terrestrial research sites

Although STRI is based in Panama, research is conducted throughout the tropics. STRI's Center for Tropical Forest Science uses large, fully enumerated forest plots to monitor tree demography in 14 countries located in Africa, Asia and the Americas. More than 3,000,000 individual trees representing 6,000 species are being studied. STRI's Biological Diversity of Forest Fragments project created experimental forest fragments of 0.01, 0.1, and 1.0 km² to study the consequences of landscape transformation on forest integrity in the central Amazon region. STRI marine scientists are conducting a global survey of levels of genetic isolation in coral reef organisms.

Marine laboratories

STRI has marine laboratories on both coasts of Panama, including a new Caribbean laboratory at Bocas del Toro, and a modern research vessel, giving access to two very different oceans that are only 80 km apart. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans were divided by the Isthmus of Panama about three million years ago, creating a superb "natural experiment" in evolution.


*Offices, laboratories, and a major library in Panama City.
*Accommodations and laboratory facilities in Gamboa, near the 220 km² Soberania National Park.
*A field station in western Panama at Fortuna, providing access to tropical montane forest.
*A resident international staff of over 35 scientists.
*Fellowship support for students and visiting scientists for stays ranging from ten weeks to three years.
*A network of collaborating individuals and institutions distributed throughout the tropics.

Further reading

The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them. Published by Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 328 pp. A popular-science book by Elizabeth Royte describes the researchers' life on Barro Colorado Island:

External links

* [ STRI]

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