(21 Years Later ... another Barro Colorado Island article)

The Panama Canal Review, May 1967

A mere mention of the Isthmus of Panama suggests to many of the world's leading scientists an inconspicuous, 3,600-acre {seems to also have lost 400 acres in the 21 year gap} sitting in Lake Gatun.

Barro Colorado Island, which some Isthmian residents are barely aware exists, is a biological reserve and research station where scientists may study, observe and experiment in ideal surroundings.

The island was formed in 1914 during the Canal construction days when the Chagres River was dammed and the entrapped water became what is now Lake Gatun, the principal source of water for the Canal. For the past 21 years, the Island, as the Canal Zone Biological Area, has been operated by the Smithsonian Institution.

It is part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute which includes also two marine biological laboratories and a small forested area, all in the Canal Zone. Director of the Institute is Dr. Martin H. Moynihan.

More than 100 scientists visit the island each year to carry on work that keeps them there for periods ranging from a few hours to several months. Rich tropical foliage growing without restriction, an outstanding selection of wildlife, especially mammals, that can be observed in their own habitat, plus laboratory facilities, and simple but wholesome living conditions are some of the characteristics making the preserve so valuable to the trained scientist.

Once open to the general public, Barro Colorado Island officials now do not encourage visits by non-scientists. Years ago, when tourists were invited, they were faced with one imposing deterrent that still exists -a narrow and steep stairway of more than 200 steps leading from the boat dock up the hillside to the research station that overlooks the Canal. The only elevator is a small, makeshift affair for cargo.

BCI is strictly off limits to hunters who have been known to covet game, particularly the paca and tapir. Employees of the Smithsonian Institution patrol the 30-mile irregular shoreline in cayucos to guard against poachers. When apprehended, violators face prosecution and stiff sentences.


The sweeping variety of animals found on the island is attributed to the hunting prohibition. Contrary to what some may tend to believe, the animals, birds and insects found loose are indigenous to the area and did not flock there in desperation when the waters of Lake Gatun rose.

Dr. Neal G. Smith, a staff zoologist who spent 2 years on the island, believes that in no other tropical region can scientists interested in animals find them so easily.

Creatures not native to the island are sometimes taken there in cages for observation but are not released. Those which are or have been indigenous to the area are, at times, restocked.

The layman fortunate enough to make a brief visit finds many animals and insects in cages, and hears their sounds, such as the ear-shattering call of the howler monkey. But he does not see them when strolling through the more than 40 miles of trails -each named after a scientist and each marked every 100 meters- which provide access to various parts of the island.

The animal population includes more than 250 species of birds, 65 species of mammals, 22 lizards, 37 snakes, 5 turtles, 2 crocodiles, 15 toads, 16 frogs, 2 salamanders, and 22 fishes. These figures do not take into account the spiders, insects, other arthropods, and mollusks common to the island.

Comprising the island staff are a manager, a full-time librarian, cook, cleaning woman, carpenter, mechanic, boatmen, woodsmen, and animal keepers. Two full-time staff scientists currently working on the island are Dr. Michael Robinson, a British animal behaviorist, and Dr. A. Stanley Rand, a herpetologist from the United States.

There are four interns, three from the United States and one from France, engaged in varied projects as part of pre-doctoral degree work. The Smithsonian Institution internship program allows selected budding scientists to work on the island, usually for 1 or 2 years to prepare for their doctoral dissertations. A similar program has been set up in cooperation with the Organization of American States under which some Latin American students already have participated.

Behaviour of wasps, white-faced monkeys and rodents and the digestive track of monkeys are a few of the investigative areas being probed by the current group of interns.

The excellent facilities and working conditions are highly valued by visiting scientists, some of whom bring their wives and even children to the island while they carry on their experiments. At present, there are three children, all of pre-school age, living on BCI.

A fine air-conditioned library emphasizing ecology, behavior, and systematics, has more than 5,000 volumes and receives some 85 journals. Equipment includes photographic darkroom, typewriters, microscopes, canoes, binoculars, balances, flight cages in the forest, field camping, and laboratory equipment.

Supplies of wood, wire, screen, glassware, preservatives, photographic chemicals, and certain other supplies are available.

Air conditioned laboratory space has sinks, benches, electrical outlets, and shelving while animal houses provide cage and aquarium space.

The research station, usually crowded during the summer months but much less so during the winter, can accommodate approximately 20 research people at one time. Living quarters include a dormitory and three comfortable but unpretentious two-room cottages; meals are served in a common dining room.

Living conditions are generally healthful, thanks partially to reliable electricity, pure drinking water and other amenities usually not available to the scientist working in the field. A short-wave radio provides communication with the mainland and by speedy launch residents of BCI are only 25 minutes from the townsite of Gamboa.

The islanders make weekly trips to Panama City for purchases of cigarettes, film and other items. This also provides opportunities for some relaxation and a break in routine with a movie or dinner in a downtown restaurant.

In addition to projects being carried on by individual scientists staying on the island, there are continuing experiments such as those of the Tropical Research Branch of Eastman Kodak which is testing tropical effects on paper, film, lenses, glues, and other products.

Military people involved in jungle survival training have been taken to the island for intensive briefings and to observe.

The island's emergence as a highly regarded scientific installation came slowly.

It began with Dr. Thomas Barbour of the National Research Council who came to the Isthmus in 1922 to find a site for a zoological research laboratory. He met entomologist James Zetek who was to put in years of work developing Barro Colorado Island.

Zetek knew the region well. He had worked for the Panama Canal's Sanitary Department, the Republic of Panama, the Board of Health Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together, they decided that BCI was the most suitable area for the research laboratory. All hunting was banned there in 1923 when Gov. Jay J. Morrow proclaimed the island a natural park.

The next year, the first buildings were officially dedicated but distinguished men of science studied and observed on the island long before adequate facilities were built.

Financial problems plagued the Island for years and it had to rely on gifts from scientific institutions, universities, philanthropists and other sources to meet expenses. A ray of sunshine appeared when in 1940 the U.S. Congress passed a bill authorizing the setting aside of an area within the Canal Zone to preserve its natural features for scientific study. The bill also authorized $10,000 a year to be given for the project's support but the appropriation was not made.

Several Government agencies provided funds to support highly confidential projects during WW II. And in 1946, the Canal Zone Biological Area became a Bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, thus bolstering its shaky economic foundation. Scientific groups and universities still assist the island financially and moderate fees, just sufficient to cover board and lodging, are charged scientists.


In one sense, the Canal Zone Biological Area was a baby of World War I. It came into being in 1923 under the sponsorship of the National Research Council which had been organized seven years before at the request of President Woodrow Wilson "as a measure of national preparedness."

When the Council's Dr. Thomas Barbour came to the Isthmus in 1922 seeking a site for a zoological research laboratory, he met James Zetek, who had dreamed of just such a plan for years. Fresh out of the University of Illinois, Mr. Zetek had come to the Canal Zone in 1911 as entomologist for the Canal's Sanitary Department and had stayed on to serve, successively and in that same capacity, the Republic of Panama, the Board of Health Laboratory, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

They combed the Isthmus and finally decided that the largest island in Gatun Lake, almost uninhabited by humans but teeming with birds, bugs, and animals, was the most suitable site for a natural preserve. The two pioneers were backed by a number of scientific societies, "terrifying enough to cause consternation to any bug that walks, flies or crawls," the Star & Herald reported in an early story on the Barro Colorado project.

On March 17, 1923, Gov. Jay J. Morrow proclaimed Barro Colorado a "natural park" and banned all hunting in its almost 4,000 acres. Twenty-five years later this date was commemorated by a special Canal Zone stamp issue, the first local stamp to bear a picture of an animal. Those 10-cent stamps today are worth 25 cents each, according to Scot's Catalogue.


The laboratory buildings came slow and hard. At one time there were plans to set up scientific headquarters on a barge anchored in the inlet. The first of the buildings was dedicated officially on March 20, 1924; today there is a cluster of 10 buildings including the kitchen, at the top of the long flight of steps.

The scientists did not wait until their creature comforts were provided for. A few weeks after the Governor's proclamation, Dr. William Morton Wheeler of Harvard, Dr. Richard Strong of the Gorgas Memorial Institute, and Mr. Zetek were at work on the island. Close on their heels came R.G. Shannon of the Bureau of Entomology; he built a small shelter and stayed on the island off and on for two moths studying blood-sucking flies. A few months later Frank E. Lutz, Associate Curator of Museum of Natural History, spent five weeks on Barro Colorado, working with stingless bees. Close behind him was Dr. W.C. Allee, of Chicago University, who was the first scientist to occupy the still unfinished large laboratory building.

The roster of distinguished men who have worked, and are still working, at the Canal Zone Biological Area reads like a Who's Who of Science. There have been Dr. David Fairchild, world-famed botanist; Dr. Frank Chapman who studied the island's birds year after year and whose "Tropical Air Castle" is one of the classics on the island; Dr. Alexander Wetmore, another internationally known ornithologist and former Secretary of the Smithsonian; Dr. Arthur Compton, who measured cosmic rays with balloons sent up from an island base and whose expedition was one of five such cosmic visitations; Prof. Alexander Petrunkeyitch and Dr. A.M. Chickering, both famous for their studies of spiders; Professor T.C.Schneirla, a foremost authority on army ants.

Barro Colorado's visitors have come from scores of colleges and universities and scientific societies and institutions, all over the world. Recently there have been representatives from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, the University of Oslo in Norway, and the American Museum of Natural History. (The current guest book also contains the name of Davy Crockett, from the Wild Frontier!)


For many years Barro Colorado had heavy financial going. At first it was financed almost entirely by gifts and by the "table contributions" of scientific institutions and universities; that is, each institution or university financed a laboratory table. Wealthy friends gave money, buildings, or equipment but still, and especially during the depression years, Mr. Zetek had to scrounge and stretch to make ends meet.

In 1940 Congress passed a bill "authorizing the setting aside of an area within the Canal Zone to preserve and conserve its natural features for scientific study," and authorized up to $10,000 a year for its support. The act did guarantee the permanency of the Biological Area but Congress did not follow through with an appropriation. During the war years, when important work -much of it still secret- was done on Barro Colorado, funds came from several government agencies. Finally, in 1946, the Canal Zone Biological Area became a Department of the Smithsonian Institution and its financial plight was somewhat eased. Some support still comes from scientific groups and from universities, and small fees -- just enough to cover board and lodging- are charged scientists and the day-to-day visitors.

Two of the important projects on Barro Colorado are what are called "continuing ones." For many years Mr. Zetek has experimented with various types of treated wood to find some barrier against omnivorous termites. He is too modest to admit it, but he is considered an outstanding authority on termites and their ways. The other continuing experiment is carried on by the Tropical Research Branch of Eastman Kodak. In a special laboratory on the island, papers, film, lenses, glues, and other Eastman products re tested for the effects of the tropics, especially in connection with fungus and the effectiveness of various fungicides.

Because of a recent bout of ill health, Mr. Zetek is not making many visits to the island right now. He runs its affairs from his Amador Road office in a building which was built from the shell of the old Culebra Post Office. There he is ably assisted by Mrs. Gomez, who makes trips to the island at least once a week, assists scientists and visitors, and, between times, helps with the voluminous paper work any such job entails.

Last June the Smithsonian Institution paid tribute to her efforts. In the presence of more than 60 top scientists and officials of the Smithsonian, she was given a Certificate of Award for her "outstanding accomplishments in the administration of the Canal Zone Biological Area."

Submitted by CZAngel
Presented by CZBrats
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