Work is just a snake-pit

August 24, 2001

In the last in our series on where academics congregate in the summer, Elizabeth Capaldi reports from an island by the Panama Canal - home to sloths, snakes, monkeys and ecologists

On Barro Colorado Island, you don't need an alarm clock. Just before dawn each day, sleep is disturbed by the calls of howler monkey troops greeting the day and one another with hoots and shouts. It's hot and humid in Panama even at this early hour, and I wonder if the monkeys are howling because of the rising heat or because of the insects that begin pestering them with the first rays of daylight.

Barro Colorado Island, known as BCI among ecologists, is an island in Gatun Lake, situated in central Panama and adjacent to the Panama Canal. Covered in tropical rainforest, it has been a biological reserve and research facility for as long as the canal has been in place and is now part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

The STRI is one of the jewels of the Smithsonian Institution, an American trust charged with research, discovery and preservation of biological, cultural and artistic information. Among scholars who measure things such as scientific longevity and productivity, the STRI is considered the premier neotropical research facility in the world. Perhaps the STRI's draw is a byproduct of the connections between the US government and the Panama Canal, but I believe that the most influential appeal of the institute is the breadth of the resources, both in the natural and intellectual environment, that surround the place.

There are scientists of many persuasions conducting research at the STRI. As a result, there is an energetic vibe pulsing around the place. This is particularly true in the northern summer months, as the rainy season gets under way in Panama, and the responsibilities of academic scientists working at universities elsewhere change - scientists abandon their offices, sever their computer connections and head to field sites for research.

My research interests involve examining insect behaviour from a comparative perspective. One goal is to think about animal behaviour and brain evolution in the context of evolutionary thought. I'm collaborating with William Wcislo, an STRI staff scientist, but the project does not involve others from my home institution. Here, there are lots of other people working on their own research projects in the same forests and nearby habitats. This means there are ample opportunities for talk between individuals and between disciplines. These interactions, whether on the trail in the rainforest, or over dinner in the BCI cafeteria, are what make STRI a special place.

BCI has state-of-the-art biological laboratories, greenhouses, dorm space for up to 64 visitors and networked computer facilities. Visiting scientists eat together in a cafeteria and enjoy evening discussions over an occasional beer, dispersed from a vending machine and stocked using the personal funds of the residents. On the island, there are weekly seminars that are affectionately titled "The Bambi" - the image of this Disney character evokes the friendly nature of the presentations.

There is something special about living in and around a tropical rainforest that encourages scientific pursuit. On my most recent day of fieldwork on BCI, I saw a tamandua anteater, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins and leaf-cutter ants on the way to my site. As I began to walk transect lines looking for the nests of bees hidden in sticks, I came upon a hognose viper, a poisonous snake, chomping on a large toad - a great thing to report to the others at dinner.

Each evening at dinner, the conversation revolves around certain themes such as "what did you see today" and "so, tell me about your work?" Most people on BCI are freed from the normal stresses present at their home institution, and yet have distinct goals and purposes for being there. The spirit of a person doing science at the STRI or on BCI can best be described as "work hard, play hard".

Often people work into the evening, though this will depend on whether they are living on BCI itself or commuting via boat to the small canal-side town of Gamboa. Here I have rented an apartment from the Smithsonian. It's a spacious place with toilet facilities, running hot and cold water and a full kitchen. It has its fair share of termites, too. Thankfully, the views of sloths hanging in trees outside my living-room window more than make up for this. Frequent buses link Gamboa to Panama City along roads adjacent to the canal. After weeks of exposure, I still never tire of witnessing the activities of the shipping lanes.

The STRI has a makeshift laboratory in Gamboa that serves as the local hub for STRI residents. There are cages for insect studies and screened greenhouses for plant studies. Interactions in Gamboa are different from those on BCI, however, as there is no common galley here. We tend to gather in the computer room for checks of email, bouts of data analysis, or a quick respite from the heat in the air conditioning. Gamboa is where the STRI staffers meet the ferryboat that takes them to work every day. How many people can say they travel along the Panama Canal on their way to work?

Tropical fieldwork is a physically demanding adventure. There is usually 100 per cent humidity, with temperatures above 30C. Often it's raining torrentially, which makes the steep inclines and mud trails even more challenging. But we are all here to work and to gather as much data as possible: wasting time is not a common phenomenon among visitors here.

There is an overriding spirit of adventure and excitement. Tropical field ecologists, within any subdiscipline, are probably more similar types of people than people in other walks of life - it takes a certain temperament to leave home, adjust to constant clamminess, physical labour and, usually, low pay. It is all for the love of science and the pursuit of knowledge, I suppose - but a bit of adventure thrown in along the way can't be bad.

Elizabeth A. Capaldi is an assistant professor of animal behaviour at Bucknell University, a private, liberal arts and sciences university in Pennsylvania, United States.

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