Public Release: 

A Magic Web: The Tropical Forest of Barro Colorado

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) proudly presents A Magic Web: The Tropical Forest of Barro Colorado, published by Oxford University Press. Palms walk, transparent wings flash, teeth gnash and wasps oviposit when STRI staff ecologist, Egbert Leigh, and photographer, Christian Ziegler, team up artfully to celebrate one of the most intensively studied tropical forests on the planet, Panama's Barro Colorado Island.

An adept ecology student and photographer, Ziegler arrived on Barro Colorado in 1999. He quickly identified a glaring hole in the publication record of nearly 80 years of tropical biology research: no coffee table book, no published collection of photos, presented this amazing community of plants, animals and scientists to students and the public.

The obvious choice for author, Egbert Giles Leigh, Jr., joined the STRI staff in 1969. Leigh has contributed two scientific summaries of work on Barro Colorado, as co-editor of "The Ecology of a Tropical Forest: Seasonal Rhythms and Long-term Changes"(1982) and as author of "Tropical Forest Ecology, A View from Barro Colorado Island" (1999). After dinner on the Island, Leigh regularly invites greenhorn and seasoned researchers to his study, where the day's discoveries can be sipped and savored.

With Leigh on board, and with funds from STRI, Ziegler spent 15 months in the field over the next two years to photograph Barro Colorado. Island scientists learned to find Christian when they spotted a toucan nest or parasitoid wasps ovipositing in caterpillar pupae. Ziegler's biology background and perseverance enabled him to close the gap between photographer and subject, resulting in intimate natural images.

"Taking advantage of the knowledge of generations of researchers, using modern camera techniques and being patient (and in many cases, lucky), I have tried to lift the green curtain for brief moments to obtain glimpses of the processes that shape the forest of Barro Colorado Island."

After a series of dramatic first impressions, Leigh begins with a discussion of the variety of life and fragile interdependence of tropical forest ecosystems. We are guests of the green plants of this planet. Water coaxes nutrients out of volcanic rock and sea sediment. Further up the food chain, organisms invent devious strategies to eat and avoid being eaten. As the sun sets, a different set of animals wakes to prowl, flit and call. Social animals, evolving millions of years ago, raise questions about why animals cooperate in a competitive world. And finally, why does tropical forest matter and what hopes exist for stemming the tide of forest destruction?

Whereas it is urgent that we get off intellectual and physical islands to save what remains of tropical forest worldwide, Barro Colorado has been, and continues to be, a teacher and a starting point for journeys of biological, personal and aesthetic discovery.

Ziegler has published additional photos in GEO, BBC Wildlife, International Wildlife and Smithsonian Magazines. In 2001 his photo of an army ant colony on Barro Colorado won in one of the categories of the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. The Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service will produce an exhibit featuring 40 photographs from "A Magic Web," to open in the National Zoo, Washington, D.C. next spring and travel throughout the US.

Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr recommends: "Visit the tropics by all means, for there is nothing more wonderful than the tropical forest, but if you can't, read A Magic Web."


Ref. A Magic Web: The Tropical Forest of Barro Colorado Island. 2002. Photographs by Christian Ziegler, Text by Egbert Giles Leigh, Jr. Oxford University Press.

Christian Ziegler
Egbert Leigh

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), with headquarters in Panama City, Panama, is one of the world's leading centers for basic research on the ecology, behavior and evolution of tropical organisms.

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