The Colonial Origins of Tropical Field Stations

Megan Raby. American Scientist, Research Triangle Park. Volume 105, Issue 4,  July/August 2017.

In 1896, an American plant scientist named Daniel T. MacDougal warned of a bias in botanical knowledge. The study of living plants, he told the readers of Botanical Gazette, “rested largely upon the results of researches carried on in the north temperate zone.” European and North American scientists tended to study organisms in the familiar, temperate environments that they found close at hand. They understood tropical plants and animals primarily from the study of dead specimens or by experimenting with individuals raised in northern laboratories and gardens.

MacDougal was an early advocate of the science of ecology. He argued that organisms needed to be understood in relation to the environments in which they had evolved. Adapting to the heat and humidity of a Jamaican rainforest, for example, presented quite different problems for a plant than surviving a winter in Minnesota. MacDougal contended that botanists’ narrow focus on temperate-zone life would produce conclusions about ecology and evolution that were “not capable of general application.” Tropical organisms needed to be studied in the tropics, he insisted, not only because those settings were interesting in their own right, but also so that scientists could achieve a more fundamental understanding of biological phenomena. With this goal in mind, MacDougal and other members of the U.S. scientific community began to work to establish field stations-places where they could study tropical life in situ.

Thanks in large part to the tropical stations established in the decades following this call to action, biologists have a fuller picture of the diversity of life on Earth than they did a century ago. Yet the bias that worried MacDougal has not disappeared. Although tropical environments are much better understood than in MacDougal’s day, they remain significantly underrepresented in current field research.

Overwhelmingly, ecologists still concentrate their research at sites in North America and Europe. Although tropical countries make up about 40 percent of global land area and harbor the vast majority of the planet’s species, only about 10 percent of published ecological studies are based at tropical field sites, according to a 2012 survey by Laura J. Martin (who was then at Cornell University) and colleagues. Furthermore, the distribution of fieldwork within the tropics is itself uneven. Tropical Africa and Asia remain comparatively neglected, while a tight cluster of field studies can be found in a handful of locations, largely in Central America. In particular Panama and Costa Rica play an outsized role, hosting 30 to 50 times more field studies than would be expected given their small size, according to Martin’s research and similar findings by a team led by Gabriela Stocks at the University of Florida.

By correlating patterns of field research with present-day social and economic factors, ecologists have begun to examine the causes of these uneven patterns of fieldwork. Researchers including Tatsuya Amano and William J. Sutherland at the University of Cambridge and a group led by the University of California’s George Livingston have looked at how wealth, security, and investment in science shape the distribution of fieldwork, and have also examined the implications of this unevenness for both basic science and conservation efforts.

Current social and economic data can tell only part of the story, however. Ecologists have concentrated their efforts in Panama and Costa Rica largely for historical reasons. These countries are home to some of the world’s oldest and most well-established tropical field stations-those of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). In this case, patterns in field research are as much a product of institutional and political history as of a country’s gross domestic product.

A closer look at the history of ecological fieldwork in Central America and the Caribbean during the 20th century can offer clues for understanding the roots of broader disparities in fieldwork around the globe. Indeed, the question of the global distribution of fieldwork should be of concern well beyond the discipline of ecology. Similar but even less studied geographic biases certainly exist in other environmental sciences-including geology, soil science, paleontology, archeology, and oceanography-where geopolitics has historically shaped access to field areas.

An Era of Station Building

MacDougal’s 1896 call for research in the tropics was prompted by the emergence of ecological science, but it also came at a significant political moment. Many Americans-not just scientists- were becoming increasingly interested in lands to the south as debate raged over whether the United States should intervene in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain. Ultimately, in 1898 it did. The resulting Spanish-American War brought the United States a tropical empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. By 1904, the United States had also acquired the Panama Canal Zone. Beyond these official colonies, U.S. business interests expanded into many independent countries and European colonies of the circum-Caribbean region. As the broader American public confronted their country’s growing role in the economies and politics of Latin America and the Caribbean, U.S. scientists saw new opportunities.

During the 19th century, American botanists and zoologists had largely been preoccupied by the project of cataloging the species of their country’s expanding western territory. At the dawn of the 20th century, the growth of trade and steamship routes throughout the circum-Caribbean increased both the areas accessible to and the funding available for research by U.S. scientists. American entomologists, engineers, and medical doctors flocked to Cuba and the Panama Canal Zone, working to control diseasebearing mosquitoes in support of their country’s strategic interests. U.S. agricultural scientists, chemists, and economic botanists likewise played key roles in the establishment of vast banana, sugar, and rubber monocultures throughout the region.

The relationship between applied science and the expansion of U.S. political and economic power is conspicuous in these cases, but even the basic ecological research that MacDougal advocated was profoundly shaped by the geopolitics of this era. He and a group of scientists from the New York Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, and several U.S. universities came together to establish at Cinchona, Jamaica, the first field station in the Western Hemisphere devoted to the study of tropical ecology. They chose a site that had access to a diverse montane rainforest, and an already welldeveloped colonial infrastructure.

The site had been a British experimental garden and plantation that grew cinchona (the source of the antimalarial drug quinine), hence its name. It was available for the Americans to rent because intercolonial economic competition had rendered the plantation unprofitable. Reaching the station required a steep, 13-mile ascent by pony into the Blue Mountains above Kingston. Still, Jamaica itself was easily reachable for Americans by frequent steamships from New York City and Boston; although a British colony, the island had become a hub of the growing U.S. fruit trade. Neither MacDougal nor the other American scientists who established Cinchona as an ecological field station were directly concerned with supporting U.S. economic or strategic interests, but these broader factors loomed large behind their choice of locale.

Through the 20th century, the number of tropical field stations grew. Cinchona had only a brief life as an ecological station, in part because the American scientists were merely tenants and in part because of the difficulties of securing funding for a station focused on basic ecological research. Nevertheless, it soon had successors throughout the circum-Caribbean region. First in Guyana (then British Guiana) and later in Venezuela and Trinidad, William Beebe of the New York Zoological Society established several field stations emphasizing animal ecology. An expert at public relations, Beebe was much more successful than the team in Cinchona in attracting the support of wealthy New York philanthropists. They offered funds and unused forested land near their rubber and oil holdings abroad, in exchange for the publicity and prestige of supporting science.

Meanwhile, Harvard University began supporting biological research in Cuba at a station near the port of Cienfuegos. Located on the Soledad sugar plantation, it began as an agricultural experiment station and botanical garden in 1899, but it housed a biological laboratory by 1924. Although the station was surrounded by cane fields, visitors there often took day trips to undeveloped native habitats, including the Ciénaga de Zapata (the Caribbean’s largest wetlands and today a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Biosphere Reserve) and forests in the Sierra Trinidad (now part of the Topes de Collantes nature reserve). As the property of a powerful Boston sugar baron, Soledad offered American biologists an apparently secure footing for ongoing field research, even after Cuba formally gained independence from the United States.

By far the most famous new station, though, was the one established in 1923 on Barro Colorado Island- the station that would in 1966 become the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Barro Colorado was protected as a nature reserve by the United States-run government of the Panama Canal Zone, so American researchers enjoyed much tighter control over the land there than at Cinchona, for example. And Barro Colorado’s location alongside one of the world’s busiest corridors of trade, the Panama Canal, made it highly accessible for scientists traveling from any port city in the United States.

A Colonial Science

The new field stations provided unprecedented access to ecological communities in the tropics during the first half of the 20th century. At Cinchona, the botanist Forrest Shreve completed his 1914 book, A Montane Rain-Forest, the first full-scale ecological study of a tropical forest in the Western Hemisphere. In the 1910s and 1920s, Beebe’s descriptions of the life histories of animals captured the imaginations of ordinary Americans, who learned of the diverse species inhabiting the quarter of a square mile of rainforest surrounding his station at Kartabo, Guyana. Beebe regaled his readers with tales of the life cycles and behavior of creatures such as the hoatzin, a bird hailed as a “missing link” because its young retain reptilian hooked claws on their wing tips. Such work helped to popularize the image of “jungle” research as solving the mysteries of evolution.

Meanwhile, the stations at Soledad and Barro Colorado were fast becoming major training grounds for the next generation of tropical researchers in the United States. Many Harvard graduate students got their first experience of the tropics at Soledad- including, most famously, Edward O. Wilson, who would go on to become one of the world’s most prominent advocates for biodiversity conservation.

Barro Colorado became a temporary home to about 30 scientists every year before World War II, and many more afterward. They produced a skyrocketing number of publications. The researchers visiting Barro Colorado developed new ways to observe and document the behavior, ecology, and diversity of organisms in a tropical forest-from pioneering studies of primate group behavior to population censuses that would prove to be the key to developing the theory of island biogeography, which predicts that small, isolated habitats will harbor lower numbers of species. At the same time, a community of self-identified “tropical biologists” formed within the United States.

By midcentury, these stations had begun to fulfill their promise of broadening biologists’ view of life on Earth, but in another way their horizons remained curiously limited. The correspondence, reports, and documents promoting these stations make it clear that their primary focus continued to be the provision of land and facilities for researchers from the United States. They were not oriented toward local scientific communities.

Indeed, those locations chosen for their accessibility to U.S. scientists could be quite inaccessible to researchers from the host countries themselves. Latin American scientists were in principle welcome at Barro Colorado, but the station’s position within the U.S.- controlled and racially segregated Canal Zone made their working there impractical. Few stayed for much longer than a day trip until the 1960s. One notable exception was the Panamanian-American ornithologist Eugene Eisenmann, celebrated for his 1952 checklist of Barro Colorado’s astoundingly diverse bird species. Born in Panama to a Panamanian mother, raised in New York, and working as a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, Eisenmann was uniquely able to cross linguistic and social barriers between the U.S. and Latin American scientific communities.

Most Panamanians on Barro Colorado were part of the station’s labor force, integral to keeping it functioning from day to day. So visiting researchers from the United States encountered Panamanians as cooks or mechanics, but rarely as fellow academics. Although local employees assisted in the scientific labor of making collections and maintaining experiments, such tasks were viewed as menial. Likewise, at Cinchona and at Beebe’s Guyanese stations, U.S. scientists depended on black West Indians’ knowledge of bewilderingly diverse floras and faunas. Researchers at Cinchona, for example, often praised the Afro-Jamaican guide and plant collector David Watt for his observational skills and ability to identify a staggering array of the plants of the surrounding mountainsides. They never recognized him as a potential member of a shared scientific community, however, despite readily affording this distinction to the white British scientists that they encountered.

Harvard’s Soledad station was in some ways exceptional in the closeness of its ties to Cuban science. Cuba had a long-standing and well-developed scientific community-albeit one centered 150 miles away in Havana. The station recognized a handful of Cuban scientists with the official title of “Collaborator.” The station was also sometimes publicized in Spanish, and its director was instrumental in securing a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1940 for the young Cuban botanist José Pérez Carabia, later the cofounder of the Jardín Botánico Nacional de Cuba. Nevertheless, the vast majority of visiting American students had little real contact with their Cuban counterparts. After all, a large portion of the attraction of working at a field station was that the basic necessities of life would be taken care of so that visitors could focus on their research. Visitors from the United States did not need to forge in-country connections, make arrangements for local labor, or even speak Spanish to work at an American-operated station. They traveled with the goal of coming into contact with tropical nature, often envisioned as a mythic “jungle” wilderness. Only rarely did some seek out real connections with local people or resi- dent scientific communities. A variety of American field scientists with strong language and cultural skills did travel more widely, but the “enclave” experience of stations was common for most.

This model became increasingly untenable in the 1960s, as Latin American and Caribbean societies pushed back against the United States’ domination of regional politics and economies. Field science was not insulated from this rising tide of nationalism and anticolonialism. After Harvard’s station was nationalized following the 1959 Cuban revolution, it and five other U.S. universities approached professors at the University of Costa Rica about a new, more explicitly collaborative venture in field education and research- what would become the Organization for Tropical Studies. Barro Colorado’s future, too, was uncertain as Panamanian calls for the return of the Canal Zone grew louder in 1964. In the midst of protests and treaty renegotiations, the station finally implemented scholarships for Panamanian students, helping to distinguish the institution from the unpopular U.S. administration.

Broadening the Field

Much has changed since that tumultuous period. Existing institutions have expanded in scope. Barro Colorado has not only grown into the cluster of stations known as STRI, but also has operated in partnership with the Republic of Panama since the dissolution of the Canal Zone in 1979. Today its scientific staff includes several Latin American researchers. OTS has likewise become more international, and since the 1970s has offered Spanishlanguage courses that have trained well over 1,000 students from Costa Rica and other Latin American countries. These well-established institutions have survived so long in large part because of their ability to adapt to changing political circumstances and their increasing emphasis on international cooperation.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, scientific communities in several tropical countries have also developed homegrown stations to support basic ecological field research-Mexico’s Estación de Biología Tropical “Los Tuxtlas” (founded in 1967) and Brazil’s Estaçao Biológica de Boracéia (founded in 1954) were among the pioneers. Notably, Gabriela Stocks’s team found that Mexico and Brazil produce a large number of field studies and that the majority of these publications are authored by Mexican and Brazilian scientists.

Nevertheless, the legacies of the 20th century remain deeply embedded in the landscape of ecological research, as well as in the demography of its participants. Although Panamanian and Costa Rican authorship is significant compared with that of most small tropical countries, authors from the United States still dominate.

At the turn of the 20th century, American scientists such as MacDougal recognized the temperate bias in ecology, but they could only envision solving it by building stations for visitors from their own country-by essentially colonizing the field. Today, tropical scientists, both foreign and local, increasingly recognize that this bias will not be overcome-and conservation goals will not be achieved-until researchers from the tropics are the ones doing most of the research in the tropics. Progress is being made, but much more can be done with a fuller awareness of the history of tropical science.

First, acknowledging the historical exclusivity of field stations in the tropics can be a catalyst for North American scientists to form more meaningful relationships with local communities of scientists and nonscientists. Rather than lacking interest or capacity, Latin American, Caribbean, and indigenous people were until very recently excluded from equal participation at ecological stations. Embedded in colonial systems of hierarchy and segregation, stations were places where * locals commonly worked as assistants or servants, but were not treated as scientific equals. Today, new models of participatory research are beginning to form, such as collaborations among indigenous Panamanians and visiting researchers from McGill University and STRI, which seek to counteract the colonial legacy of past research by recognizing indigenous rights at all stages of research. At the turn of the 20th century, tropical stations were designed to serve foreign visitors, but they need not retain this orientation.

Second, history shows that research stations-even those with powerful U.S. corporate and government allies-can be fragile institutions. Their survival depends on a critical combination of sustained local and international support. New stations are needed to overcome ecology’s temperate-zone bias-especially in tropical Africa and Asia. As a global inventory by Laura Tydecks of the Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei in Berlin and her team shows, most stations in underrepresented regions have emerged only in recent decades. But new institutions are especially vulnerable. STRI’s role in supporting the foundation of the Mpala Research Centre, Kenya, is one example of how established stations can give a boost to those within developing countries. Rather than compete, new and established stations can cooperate to help make the broader case to governments, funding agencies, and the public of the need for permanent field stations around the globe.

Finally, contemporary and historical research on both the geographic distribution of fieldwork and equity in authorship continues to be needed. Surprisingly few such studies have been done, yet without them we will never understand the serious gaps in our on-the-ground environmental knowledge. At the same time, it is to the advantage of institutions to highlight the real progress they have made and to better understand how they can improve.

Global disparities in science are certainly shaped by a variety of large and seemingly intractable economic, social, and political factors, but a rapidly changing world cannot afford to wait for economic development before achieving global scientific equity. Because stations have historically played such an integral role in shaping the global geography of field research, these institutions-both established and new-can also become sites where change can take place.