On April 17, 1923, Panama’s Barro Colorado Island was declared a tropical forest reserve for scientific study, and on March 29, 1924, the new research station was inaugurated. One hundred years later, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is celebrating the Barro Colorado Island Field Station’s centennial and the fact that it is the most intensively studied tropical forest in the world.
Barro Colorado Island was formed when the Chagres River valley was flooded to create Gatun Lake, the main channel of the Panama Canal. By monitoring bird populations on the island, scientists realized that when a forest becomes an island (or a forest fragment), it begins to lose bird species, especially during climate extremes. Their work led conservationists to create important connections between protected areas so that wildlife can move from one forest to another in times of need.
Tropical forest research on Barro Colorado Island led to a series of forest study sites in 28 countries around the world (ForestGEO) and to techniques used today to understand how forests protect biodiversity and store carbon, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that would otherwise contribute to global warming and climate change.
Work on Barro Colorado also led STRI to establish the Agua Salud experiment in the Panama Canal watershed—the largest tropical reforestation experiment of its kind—providing land use managers with information about how native tree species can be planted to improve water management and avoid flooding, store carbon, and conserve biodiversity to create a sustainable future.
The bilingual exhibit: “Barro Colorado, 100 Years of Discovery and Wonder”, is currently on show at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., with an expanded version of the same exhibit in Panama’s Museo del Canal Interoceanico (MUCI) which is on until January 2024. Estudio Nuboso was invited to organize an artist in residence to accompany the exhibit in Panama with public artworks and presentations by the artists inspired by research on Barro Colorado.
– Beth King for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Website
Upon STRI’s invitation, we designed and facilitated a six week long art-science residency. Based on research topics that STRI suggested, we selected these three artists capable of transmitting the curiosity and excitement that can lead to deepening our knowledge of this exuberant and delicate tropical environment: Carolina Borrero, Isabel Brostella, and Isabel de Obaldía. They each collaborated on long-term research projects that have been taking place on and around the island: Klaus Winter (climate change) & a group from the ForestGEO plot; Erin Spear and Hernán Capador-Barreto of the Forest Disease Lab at STRI; Rachel Page and the Smithsonian Bat Lab.
As an art and ecology platform, passionate about transmitting how important tropical ecosystems are for the general wellbeing of planet Earth and all of its inhabitants, it has been a pleasure for us to collaborate with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and the Museo del Canal Interoceánico (MUCI) in expanding this century-long dialogue on tropical science and share it with the public. Given the challenges that we face with the environmental and social crisis, we consider that many of the answers lie in deepening our innate connection with nature; and also, that interdisciplinary collaboration is key to communicate better the messages that science discovers. Art can offer space and new perspectives from which to reflect and develop a greater awareness of life systems in the planet and our role within them.
On this page you will find documentation of the residency which was co-facilitated by Emily Zhukov, Mana Pinto, Ela Spalding and Tova Katzman – who produced most of the photographs and the video that so eloquently conveys the experience. Olivia Milloway joined in with interviews and sound recordings which you can also enjoy here.
Carolina Borrero at work Paisaje Vertical (2023), Isabel De Obaldía Paisaje Vertical (2023), detalle, Isabel De Obaldía Cápsula del tiempo, by Carolina Borrero Colonia de fruteros, by Isabel De Obaldía El Suelo está Vivo , 2023 by Isabel Brostella
Get to know the artists and scientists in residency:
Isabel de Obaldía
Studied architecture at the University of Panama and drawing at l’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1979 she received her BFA in graphic design and film from the Rhode Island School of Design. Since her first exhibition in 1977, Isabel De Obaldía has participated in biennials, fairs, symposiums and international exhibitions. In 2009 she received the Corning Museum of Glass Rakow Commission Award. In 2011 she held a retrospective at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art. In recent years Isabel has created videos and animations, two of which – Por Panamá la Vida and Diario 2020 – were selected and exhibited at the 58th Carnegie International Is it Morning for you Yet? Isabel lives and works in Panama.
Smithsonian Bat Lab Sensory and Cognitive Ecology In collaboration with Isabel De Obaldía.
A group of behavioral biologists who study the sensory and cognitive ecology of Neotropical bats and their prey. Led by bat biologist Rachel Page, who has been a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama since 2009. Her research focuses on behaviour, sensory ecology, and predator-prey interactions in bats.
Audiovisual director and part of the ANIMAL Film collective, based in Panama City. She studied Film Direction at the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, she has an extensive career in short films among which stand out as: the chapter “1913” of the film “Historias del Canal” (2014) and the documentary “Los Cuentos del Bosque ” (2019). She has collaborated in different roles for cinema and commercial productions. She was curator of the audiovisual exhibition “Imagining the City: retrospective of Panamanian Cinema” and is a teacher of Film and Video for children and adolescents. He is currently directing his first documentary feature “La Selva Llama”.
The ForestGeo Plot and Climate Change In collaboration with Carolina Borrero.
The Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO) is a global network of scientists and forest research sites dedicated to advancing long-term study of the world’s forests. The network recognizes the importance of collaborating with local institutions to strengthen science capacity in an era of rapidly changing landscapes and climate to understand and predict forest dynamics. ForestGeo Arthropods is an arthropod database containing data from long-term monitoring projects around the world. This unique and expanding database is an important resource for researchers or anyone interested in the biodiversity of forest arthropods, a project led by Yacksecari López and Eduardo Navarro-Valencia
Whereas, the Domo Tropical project together with scientist Klaus Winter is focused on how tropical forests will respond to a warmer climate with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They seek an answer by growing plants in geodesic domes.
Landscape architect. Isabel seeks to build landscapes capable of altering the imposed lines and creating new ones that improve their ecological and cultural conditions over time. Her works raise awareness about elements that seem intangible but have a great impact on the territory. She believes that everything is connected and influences how we live. She lives and works in Panama City.
Disease Ecology Across Tropical Habitats Lab In collaboration with Isabel Brostella.
Integrating disease ecology, mycology, and community ecology, this laboratory explores the nature and outcomes of plant-microbe interactions, as well as the ecology and epidemiology of tropical tree fungal pathogens, through a combination of surveys and experiments in the forest, greenhouse, and laboratory. The lab is led by Dr. Erin Spear, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, who has been conducting research in Panama’s forests since 2009. She is currently conducting research, in collaboration with a team that includes Hernán Capador-Barreto, to Understanding the distribution of microorganisms on plant hosts, geographic space, and time to transform microbial research in the tropics.