Celebrating 100 Years
Panama 1910-1912: Biological Survey of Panama
Between 1910 and 1912, in what could be considered one of the first significant environmental impact studies, the Smithsonian conducted a comprehensive Biological Survey of Panama, to document the native flora and fauna of the isthmus prior to the completion of the Panama Canal. Naturalists across the United States had expressed concerns that the opening of the Canal would irrevocably alter the natural conditions of the land-bridge between North and South America. The Smithsonian took the lead, writing to President Theodore Roosevelt for support for a biological survey before the opening of the Canal.
Secretary of the Smithsonian Charles Doolittle Walcott declared, “When the canal is completed the organisms of the various watersheds [of the Isthmus of Panama, some of which emptied into the Pacific and others of which emptied into the Atlantic] will be offered a ready means of mingling together, the natural distinctions now existing will be obliterated, and the data for a true understanding of the fauna and flora placed forever out of reach.”
Museums and universities, notably the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, supported the project. The original aim of the survey was to make an inventory of the flora and fauna of the Panama Canal Zone, but thanks to an invitation from the Republic of Panama the survey was extended to all the national territory. The resulting research would provide a baseline of data for the entire region prior to the completion of the Canal in 1914.
Funded eventually by President William H. Taft, the Biological Survey began in late 1910. Biologists from the Smithsonian, government departments, and universities explored the isthmus, from lowland swamps to mountain peaks. Edward A. Goldman of the Bureau of Biological Survey, then part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), collected birds and mammals; Professor Seth E. Meek of the Field Museum of Natural History and his assistant Samuel F. Hildebrand, working for the Bureau of Fisheries of U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, collected reptiles, amphibians and fishes; they also made a census of the fresh-water fishes in the Chagres River on the Atlantic slope of the isthmus and the Rio Grande River on the Pacific slope—rivers that would soon be joined as part of the Canal water system. Eugene A. Schwarz and August Busck of the Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Entomology focused on insects. Plants were collected by Professor Henri Pittier and Albert S. Hitchcock of the Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Plant Industry and William R. Maxon from the U.S. National Museum (today the National Museum of Natural History); Pittier focused on the flowering plants, Hitchcock on the grasses, and Maxon on the ferns. Although many of these scientists were paid by the USDA, they were also honorary curators of the Smithsonian’s National Museum. While each member of the survey had a specialty, they all collected broadly in the areas they visited (Pittier the botanist, for example, collected numerous lizards).
While expedition members explored the remote regions of the Darien, entomologist Eugene Schwarz, who was a rather portly older gentleman, did most of his collecting in the towns of Paraiso, Ancon, and Porto Bello. He did some net collecting, but he also used his umbrella to beat the branches of dead trees and the young shoots on felled trees, with some success. He found lively insect communities under the bark on the many felled trees, and found coccinellids (ladybugs) on leaves of local shrubbery. He kept a diary of his travels. And, being a good government employee, he was just as careful tracking his expenses for the Department of Agriculture, spending the princely sum of $2 per day for meals.
Conditions were not easy for the scientists. Albert Hitchcock, an experienced field botanist who later took charge of the Smithsonian’s National Herbarium, wrote of traveling via horseback on “the most villainous horse that ever churned a botanist to pulp.” In preparation for his trip, he wrote numerous letters to Abercrombie & Fitch in New York City asking them to design a special tent that would be both waterproof and insect-proof. He requested special coverings for the top ends of the tent, to cover the holes for the tent poles, noting that the previous year in Alaska, the mosquitoes had lost no time in finding those holes and entering his tent. When his custom-made tent arrived, he was dismayed to find that although the company had provided coverings for the ends of the tent, they had now placed the tent pole holes at the top center, rendering his extra coverings useless!
As part of the construction of the Canal, the Chagres River was dammed to form Gatun Lake, flooding the surrounding rainforest. When entomologist August Busck returned to his early collecting areas, he found conditions quite different from what they were before. The old trails through the swamp and forest were now flooded knee-deep, and the water was still rising half a foot a day. He now had to collect from inside a dugout canoe. The remaining hilltops, however, proved all the richer in insect life. He wrote, “The augmentation of the mosquito fauna proved as interesting as it did annoying to the collector.”
The first full year of 1911 was regarded as a preliminary survey, with a follow-up program for 1912. The scientists discovered and collected numerous previously unknown species—birds, including a new hummingbird, twelve new mammals, as well as new ferns, mosses, grasses and moths. Goldman alone collected some 2,000 birds, 400 mammals, and 160 reptiles and amphibians in 1910-1911.
The publication of several articles in 1912 marked the start for the scientists of working up the collections—a process that, not surprisingly, took many years. Hildebrand published several monographs on the Panama fishes. Goldman’s monumental The Mammals of Panama appeared in 1920. G. K. Noble published on the frogs in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in 1924. Alexander Ruthven and Thomas Barbour worked on the Anolis lizards, but the reptiles and amphibians were not completed until 1932. Many of these volumes are now available digitally, having been scanned for the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
The Smithsonian’s involvement in Panama continued well after the initial survey. In 1921, it joined with a consortium of museums and universities, coordinated by the National Research Council, to found the Institute for Research in Tropical America, with the aim of establishing permanent field stations in Latin America. Thomas Barbour, the wealthy director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, was a leader in the creation of the institute and financed it for many years. Panama was a natural location for one of these stations; its easy access from the United States via the United Fruit Company steamer and the logistical support of the U.S. military and the Panama Canal Commission made it very attractive. There was also an excellent site for the station: Barro Colorado Island. The 4,000-acre island had originally been a hilltop, but had become an island when the Chagres River was dammed to create a watershed for the Panama Canal, forming the man-made Gatun Lake. It had few inhabitants and a rich flora and fauna.
In 1923, this island was established as a nature reserve. For twenty years the Barro Colorado Island Biological Laboratory operated as a private institution, subsisting on annual dues from major colleges and museums—an arrangement such as that found at the Naples Zoological Station in Italy or the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The island laboratory solidified North American, and especially Smithsonian, interest in Panama. In 1946 it became an official bureau of the Smithsonian—the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, today one of the world’s leading tropical research institutions.
The list of scientists working at Barro Colorado Island Laboratory soon sounded like a “Who’s Who in Science,” including the elite of American natural history. Alexander Wetmore, ornithologist and sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian, made annual trips to Panama over the course of two decades, conducting research and collecting specimens for his massive multi-volume work, The Birds of the Republic of Panama.
Several scientists wrote popular accounts of Barro Colorado, establishing international reputations for the island and themselves. David Fairchild’s The World Was My Garden and Warder and Marjorie Allee’s Jungle Island made Barro Colorado a well-known site. Frank Chapman, of the American Museum of Natural History, wrote perhaps the most popular account of his field trips to Barro Colorado Island, My Tropical Air Castle: Nature Studies in Panama, which went through numerous editions.
In 2002, Eldredge Bermingham, current director of STRI, and a team of researchers revisited the survey spots of fresh-water fishes from 1910-12, to see what had happened over a century of change. They expected to find that some species on either slope had become extinct in the face of new competition. What they discovered completely surprised them—it was in fact exactly the opposite. No species had become extinct, and they found that the Canal connection had created greater biological diversity, and that the region was more species rich than it was 100 years ago! This paper, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, is an important contribution to our understanding of biological invasion.
See photos of Panama 1911-12 from the Field Museum on Flickr
Make the Dirt Fly – A Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition about building the Panama Canal
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