Barro Colorado is a 4,000-acre island in the middle of the Panama Canal. Nearly six times the size of New York’s Central Park, the island is at the heart of a wildlife sanctuary that straddles surrounding peninsulas jutting into the famous waterway. The island is home to a wonderfully intact tropical forest with thousands of species of animals and plants. It is also host to hundreds of scientists who come each year to study its biodiversity, “one of the most studied places on Earth and … a prototype for measuring diversity of plant and animal life around the world,” the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) says on its Barro Colorado website. (STRI has been managing the Barro Colorado sanctuary for decades.)
Among the researchers who have explored the island and its species are Egbert Leigh, an ecologist with the Smithsonian, and Christian Ziegler, a biologist-turned-photojournalist whose work has been published by National Geographic, GEO, Smithsonian Magazine, and BBC Wildlife Magazine. Together they spent 15 months researching and documenting the ecology of the tropical rain forest of Barro Colorado for a picture book, A Magic Web, first published in November 2002. Now they have teamed up again to revise the book with the latest research and even more gorgeous photography. The result is an even more glorious celebration of the diversity of the tropical island in the Panama Canal.
News Watch interviewed Ziegler about the revised book:
Why have you produced A Magic Web?
The purpose of this book, now in a second, redesigned, and updated edition by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, is to provide interested lay people with a fun opportunity to understand how tropical forests work. It is a fusion of a coffee table book with a popular science book, and an accessible, yet profound way for non-biologists (and biologists as well) to get an introduction of tropical ecology.
Barro Colorado Island is obviously a very special place for you.
Barro Colorado Island is a very special place for anybody interested in tropical biology. It is by far the most intensely researched tropical forest on the planet; the field station was established in 1928 and over the decades thousands of tropical biologists of all disciplines have done work here at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which runs the station. In fact a lot of our text book knowledge about tropical rain forests comes from this island. I first came here as a grad student, working on arthropods (insects and spiders) and their diversity in the epiphytic bromeliads. Being able to work on this island was just amazing to me, to see the origin of so much knowledge and to get to meet many scientists whose work I knew from the literature.
How many years have you been documenting the island? What’s changed over the years?
I first came to Barro Colorado in 1997, so that makes it 15 years now. Things change, and yet they stay the same. Tropical forests are mosaics of permanently changing phases of regeneration. A big tree falls and creates a large gap, and suddenly plenty of light and nutrients are available and a race begins amongst the seedlings to fill the gap. Within 3 years there is a closed canopy again; within 7 years it is 30 feet high; and within 20 years it reaches 50 feet or more. This way there is a space for all species at all times.
In terms of research, what has changed is the methods, not so much the questions. We still try to understand how such high biodiversity is maintained, and how it evolved in the first place. We also need to understand what current climate change means for tropical forests, and their ability to store carbon. Long time data sets like the ones collected on Barro Colorado Island are extremely important for these questions, because we can look back in time.
What have you updated in the book?
Since the first edition, I have worked on Barro Colorado for a number of magazine assignments, most of which evolved out of the book and ideas I had as I was shooting certain species and concepts. Therefore better images became available for example on bats, on other nocturnal animals, on camouflaged creatures, and some others. In total about a third of the images were replaced, and all slides were re-scanned with a much better scanner. Then all images went through the same color correction process to make them match. The author, Dr. Egbert Leigh completely worked over the text and adjusted areas where relevant findings had been published in the meantime. One big change is also the layout; the book designer, Lisa Lytton, did a completely new layout, so it is now a different format with a much more open design.
What were some of the biggest challenges photographing the island?
A first challenge was to decide on the ‘characters’, which would be the examples to illustrate certain processes. The next one was to find the animals and plants, and to think about how exactly each one should be shown.
What photographs are you biggest accomplishments on the island?
Over the time that I have spent photographing here, I helped develop the digital version of National Geographic’s camera traps. Getting these to work, and improving them since then is something I am proud of, as well as a story on ocelots, which I did for the magazine using the camera traps.
What photographs have you wished you make, but as yet have not been able to to achieve?
There are always many that you hope for, and that never materialize, even after many years. Barro Colorado Island does not have a permanent resident puma or jaguar, but individuals of both species frequently swim onto the island from the mainland, and stay for some weeks to hunt. I had always hoped to be able to get a camera trap photo of one of these, and tried on many occasions, but it just never happened. Good to have some things left to photograph here.
What are the biggest threats to the island?
Barro Colorado is well protected, as the core part of the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, the oldest protected area in all of Latin America. Park guards make sure that no logging or poaching is taking place, and therefore there is an abundance of wildlife. We don’t know what global change will bring to the forest, the climate data from here, reaching back almost 100 years, seems to suggest that the dry seasons might be getting longer and more severe, which in turn has consequences for which trees are successful in the forest. Time will tell.
Celebrating 100 years of research and exploration in Panama, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute published the second, updated edition of A Magic Web, a coffee table book about the processes that shape tropical forests, using Barro Colorado Island as an example. Author Egbert Leigh updated the text while Christian Ziegler exchanged some 50 images.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.