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Liquid Jungle Lab

Science in the Liquid Jungle

Wild and remote, the Pacific coast of Panama looks like paradise. A new facility located there will offer scientists a unique research opportunity.

During a vacation cruise in 1999, Jean Pigozzi, a conservation-minded European businessman, happened to moor his yacht for the night in a quiet cove off the Pacific coast of Panama. What he saw at dawn dazzled him.

“I saw this incredible bay,” Pigozzi recalled in a later interview. “I heard howler monkeys. I saw little dolphins jumping around the boat. I saw amazing red crabs running around the mountains.”

He also spotted evidence of forest burning and degradation of the surrounding coral reefs. Smitten by its beauty and concerned about its ruin, Pigozzi began buying acreage near the coast , and now owns about 20 miles of sand beach, rocky shore, and jungle. Three years ago, he began building on the land - not a beachfront resort - but a scientific laboratory that will operate with guidance of the Ocean Life Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

“I fell in love with this place, and it turns out that it’s extremely interesting,” Pigozzi said. “I’m interested in conserving the sea and the forest and in bringing science and high technology to conservation. That’s the dream I have.”

An opportunity for science
In March 2004, a group of WHOI scientists were among the first to begin research projects at the Liquid Jungle Lab, located within Pigozzi’s property on a one-mile-square island called Isla Canales de Tierra. From photos, this hilly green Pacific island could be mistaken for an out-of-the-way tropical resort. Jewel-colored fish mob coral reefs. Porpoises swim in a turquoise sea near a jungle full of spiders, beetles, and butterflies.

“It looked like paradise, but within all this beauty we saw a terrific opportunity for scientists,” said Jesús Pineda, a biologist at WHOI who was among four scientists selected to scout the site in 2001 for research potential.

Impressed by the pristine environment, and Pigozzi’s commitment to science and conservation, WHOI scientists agreed that the isolated location offered researchers a rare chance to study marine ecosystems relatively untouched by pollution and development.

The island lab sits 155 miles southwest of Panama City. Accessible only by boat and plane, the isolation is one reason that wildlife has flourished and visitors have stayed away. About 10 miles southwest is Coiba Island, home to a penal colony which is expected to close in the near future, after which the island will become a national park.

"The thing that really excites me is I can come and see environments that no one has worked on before,” said Larry Madin, a senior scientist at WHOI and Director of the Ocean Life Institute. “We can come here, take out small boats, work on drifting plankton or jellyfish, then come back to this lab to work on our results. Other people working on everything from viruses to dolphins are going to find similar opportunities.”

Research begins spring 2004
In the spring of 2004, Madin took eight other biologists, ecologists, and chemists to the lab to begin developing research plans. Within a few years, Madin anticipates that dozens of scientists worldwide could be visiting to conduct basic and applied scientific research projects.

The lab operates under a scientific cooperative agreement between WHOI, STRI, and a foundation established by Pigozzi. Scientists from WHOI and STRI provide ocean-related scientific and technical advice on field station design and operation.

“If this works the way I think it will work, this could be a model for other laboratories elsewhere,” said Bob Gagosian, President and Director of WHOI.

There now exists a shore lab with running seawater for experiments, a marina, a helicopter pad, and an airstrip. Panamanian farmers are working to transform an abandoned farm on the property into an organic farm to encourage adoption of sustainable agricultural practices in the area while providing fresh fruits and vegetables for lab visitors.

“The concept of this lab is to create a community of scientists,” Madin said, “and in fact, the lab is designed like a village,” complete with modern laboratory and storage space along with an infirmary, a library, and conference rooms.

Asking WHOI for guidance
Pigozzi often says that he wants to support “interesting, productive projects.” In 2001, after hearing a talk about WHOI science projects at a California technology conference, Pigozzi approached WHOI for guidance with developing a program for scientific research on his land.

Pigozzi, a self-described independent venture capitalist, inherited much of his fortune from his family, creators of the Simca car company. Pigozzi graduated Harvard University in the early 1970s and has since explored a range of interests, from selling supermarket carts to photography, magazine publishing, film making, and modern African art collecting.

“Some people at WHOI were asking, ‘who is this guy that hangs out with (actor) Michael Douglas and Mick Jagger?’” said Dan Stuermer, Director of Development at WHOI. “They felt he’s different than the traditional WHOI supporter. Others felt that his celebrity status doesn’t make him a bad guy at all. In fact, it might be good for us.”

By Amy E. Nevala (anevala@whoi.edu)

Last updated: July 16, 2010