The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI, Spanish: Instituto Smithsonian de Investigaciones Tropicales) is located in Panama and is the only bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States. It is dedicated to understanding the past, present, and future of tropical ecosystems and their relevance to human welfare. STRI grew out of a small field station established in 1923 on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone to become one of the world's leading tropical research organizations. STRI's facilities provide for long-term ecological studies in the tropics and are used by some 1,200 visiting scientists from academic and research institutions around the world every year.
Smithsonian scientists first came to Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914. The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Charles Doolittle Walcott, reached an agreement with Federico Boyd 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 U.S. universities and the Smithsonian Institution. By 1940, when BCI was designated the Canal Zone Biological Area (CZBA), more than 300 scientific publications had described the biota of BCI. In the Government Reorganization Act of 1946, BCI became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) was created in 1966.
With the establishment of STRI, permanent staff scientists were hired and fellowship programs were initiated to support aspiring tropical biologists. The first director after the name change was Martin Humphrey Moynihan. A strong relationship with the Republic of Panama was formalized in the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977, which gradually transferred control of the Canal Zone to Panama. The treaties created the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, which included BCI and five surrounding peninsulas, and granted STRI custody of the monument. Panama granted STRI International Mission status in 1985 and, in 1997, the nation extended STRI's custodianship of facilities beyond the culmination of the Panama Canal Treaties in 1999.
STRI's first director after the institute's establishment in 1966 was Martin Humphrey Moynihan. Geographer and scientist Charles F. Bennett, along with his wife, Anna Carole Bennett, participated in STRI during the 1960s, assisting in the organizing of the library, researching and collecting microclimate data, and studying neotropical forests. In 1966, Bennett became an honorary Research Associate of STRI. A large collection of papers by STRI researchers at Barro Colorado Island was published as an anthology in 1982, The Ecology of a Tropical Rainforest.
STRI has an average of 350 ongoing research projects and publishes more than 400 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals every year.
STRI's research facilities allow staff scientists, fellows and visiting scientists to achieve their research objectives. Most of STRI's 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 1,200 scientists to STRI each year.
STRI hosts 10-15 university field courses every year. Participating universities include Princeton, McGill, Northeastern, Wisconsin Green Bay, Yale, Harvard, Ohio State, Arizona State, Marquette, Texas A&M Butler, Cambridge, Dartmouth College and University of Vermont. STRI also runs an intensive field course for Panamanian and Central American undergraduates. Since 1965, STRI has supported some 5,500 fellows and interns of various academic levels, from undergraduate, master and PhD students, to postdoctoral and senior researchers.
The Barro Colorado Nature Monument includes the 16 km² Barro Colorado Island, which is covered with tropical forest and boasts a nearly intact mammal fauna. It also includes 40 km² of surrounding mainland peninsulas covered by forests in various stages of succession, serving as a site for manipulative field experiments. The monument adjoins Panama's 220 km² Soberania National Park.
With an unparalleled store of background information reflecting almost a century of research in a protected setting, Barro Colorado Island has become a major global center for tropical research.
Barro Colorado is open for public day visits, but advance reservations must be made.
Although STRI is based in Panama, research is conducted throughout the tropics. The Smithsonian's Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO) network (formerly CTFS, Center for Tropical Forest Science) uses standard study protocols to monitor more than 70 forest plots in 28 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The protocols were developed on BCI in the early 1980s. More than six million individual trees representing 12,000 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.
STRI is headquartered at the Earl S. Tupper Research, Library and Conference Center in Ancón, Panama City. STRI has other installations around Panama City including the Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology, a Canopy Access Crane system in the Parque Natural Metropolitano (with a sister crane in the San Lorenzo National Park on Panama's Caribbean slope), and the Naos Marine and Molecular Laboratories on the Amador Causeway. The marine laboratory has a dock, wet lab and scientific diving office, facilitating research in the Gulf of Panama.
The causeway, which is at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is also home to STRI's visitor center, the Punta Culebra Nature Center, which is open year-round to the general public and school groups.
STRI has laboratories in the town of Gamboa, which is abutted by Soberanía National Park, the Panama Canal and the Chagres River in central Panama. The Gamboa labs facilitate research on forest ecology, animal behavior, plant physiology, evolution and other disciplines. Adjacent to Soberanía, STRI has the 700-hectare Panama Canal Watershed Experiment, which studies multiple land-use practices to determine their impact on hydrology, carbon storage and potential for reforestation.
STRI has two Caribbean marine laboratories. One is the small facility of Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory near the city of Colón, at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. The other is the Bocas del Toro Research Station, a modern marine laboratory on Isla Colón within one mile of downtown Bocas del Toro. The research station has a dock, dive locker and a fleet of small research vessels that provide access to mangrove, seagrass and coral reef ecosystems.
The Fortuna Field Station provides access to montane forest in western Panama.
STRI has a small field station is on the island of Coibita in Coiba National Park. The station provides access to the 500-km2 Coiba Island and extensive coral reef systems of the Eastern Tropical Pacific
The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them, Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 328 pp. A popular-science book by Elizabeth Royte which describes the researchers' life on Barro Colorado Island.
Coexistence: The Ecology and Evolution of Tropical Biodiversity, Oxford University Press, 2016. 275 pp. This book by Jan Sapp chronicles the history of tropical research as pioneered by Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues in Panama.