An STRI study of climate effects relied on monthly forest monitoring.
When Covid-19 hobbled work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama earlier this year, research fellow Dumas Gálvez acted quickly. He entered his lab in Gamboa, about 20 miles northwest of Panama City, and removed 70 boxes containing ant colonies he has been studying. Then he drove them to what has served since as an alternative research venue—the second bathroom of his home in Paraíso, nine miles away.
Such improvisation has not been possible for many other scientists at the institute, one of the world’s foremost centers of tropical-ecology investigation. Indeed, restrictions undertaken to combat the novel coronavirus have undermined myriad STRI projects ranging from rainforest monitoring to studies of invasive species.
Panama imposed a nationwide stay-at-home order on March 25, with non-essential employees only able to leave their homes for a two-hour period every day. The restriction was tightened on April 1, with people only allowed out on alternating days of the week. On July 1, the government lifted the two-hour restriction in rural provinces outside Panama City. But because most of the institute offices and labs are in the capital, and national parks used as research sites remain closed, STRI’s 400 employees and 40 staff scientists still face major hurdles. “It’s hard to find any project or any area of our research that hasn’t either been delayed or canceled,” says Matt Larsen, who retired in July as STRI’s director.
Larsen estimates that in normal times the institute receives over 100 international monthly scientific visitors ranging from university students to professional researchers. He says that last year its projects generated over 500 articles in scientific journals, noting that STRI’s 100-year data set on tropical wildlife species attracts researchers from around the world. Now there are virtually no such visits. Larsen says the institute’s hardest-hit research projects have been those that depend on seasonal data-gathering. “When you lose two, three, four months of a field operation—particularly if it’s based on seasonality—you have to wait a year before you can replicate that season,” he says.
One such study was tracking the health of rainforest tree seedlings over a year. Monitoring the seedlings in April was particularly important, since that’s when Panama’s dry season ends and its wet season begins. STRI senior scientist Joe Wright says the project, now delayed, aimed to explore why tropical forests typically host a higher number of tree species than temperate forests. “You can have twice as many tree species in a 500-meter by 500-meter area in the Amazon than you have in all of the United States plus Canada,” says Wright.
Focus on pathogens
The leading hypothesis, Wright says, concerns pathogens, particularly fungi and the abundant tropical moisture that furthers their dispersal. Wright believes pathogens prevent any one tree species from dominating an area, allowing a variety of species to flourish in otherwise favorable growing conditions. “Many of these pathogens are specific,” Wright says. “They might have only attacked trees in the same genus. Some are specific to a single species of tree. Most are a little more general than that, but their virulence also varies. They’ll be more virulent against a particular species.”
Wright was conducting the research with Hilario Espinosa, a Panamanian Ph.D. candidate making the project the focus of his dissertation at the University of Haifa. At the project site in Gigante Peninsula, a forest reserve in Lake Gatun, they spent a year setting up outdoor structures to ensure seedlings of 15 tree species would receive different amounts of rainwater. They planned to visit the site once or twice weekly in order to monitor pathogen growth on the seedlings and catch plants in the right stage of infection, Wright says. Once an initial pathogen breaches a plant’s defenses, others can follow. It then becomes difficult if not impossible to isolate which pathogen caused the infection. But the pandemic prevented researchers from collecting seeds they needed to start the process, Espinosa says, as the trees fruited during March, April and May.
For Espinosa, the stoppage is more than just a year-long gap in the data. Espinosa is unsure whether he can get more funding to complete the project. “I don’t know if they’re going to say ‘Okay, Hilario, no worries, we want to extend your scholarship one year more,’ or ‘Hilario, sorry, but we can only extend it six months,’” Espinosa says.
Ecologist Helene Muller-Landau says quarantine restrictions will create a gap in decades-long data sets that the institute maintains on plant and animal species. Muller-Landau has focused her work on the trees of Barro Colorado, an island in Lake Gatun, an artificial water body that forms part of the Panama Canal. “In the big picture, what we’re interested in understanding is how tropical forests respond to climate variation and therefore be able to [develop] a better basis for predicting how they’re going to continue to respond as the climate continues to change,” Muller-Landau says.
Data updates a must
Yet because of the Covid-19 crisis, two types of ongoing, long-term data-gathering have been interrupted, Muller-Landau says. The first involves monthly measures of leaf coverage, tree diameters and soil respiration indicators. The second concerns tree heights and tree-fall events. “If you don’t get the monthly data, you can’t necessarily say exactly when the trees died and link it so well to meteorological events,” Muller-Landau says.
For his part, STRI staff scientist Mark Torchin says Covid-19 has stalled a collaborative study he helped steer to chart the travels of fish in the Panama Canal. The study sought to gauge how far into the canal’s water system marine fish species are traveling since wider canal locks were completed in June. Torchin points out that not only might fish species use the canal to enter waters where they’re not native (such as Atlantic tarpon, which already range in the Pacific from Guatemala to the border of Colombia and Ecuador); they also might bring marine parasites. Indeed, Torchin says one aim of the study was to determine whether fish-borne parasites can survive the journey from one end of the waterway to the other.
Against that backdrop, Dumas Gálvez is one of the lucky few whose work could be moved. As in the case of the tree-seedling study, his research involves pathogen monitoring—specifically of two fungus species, and how a common tropical ant’s resistance to them varies in different environmental conditions. Rushing ant colonies from the lab to his house was inconvenient, but Gálvez is not complaining. “Working in the bathroom is not ideal,” he says. “But it’s better than nothing.”
- Corey Kane