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For Immediate Release: May 4, 2009
Contact: Diana Kenney, MBL, 508-289-7139; dkenney@mbl.edu


Woods Hole Consortium

Liquid Jungle Laboratory

Live Web Cam from the LJL and the Pluto Underwater Observatory

Photos: Click on thumbnails for larger images

burning land

Burning land: Forested land is burned for other uses, such as cattle grazing, in an upland coastal watershed in Rio Ballena, Pacific coast of Panama. Credit: Ivan Valiela

mangrove estuary

Giblin and Fox in mangrove: MBL scientists Anne Giblin and Sophia Fox in a mangrove estuary in Rio Limon, Panama. Credit: Ivan Valiela


Setting up at lagoon: MBL scientists prepare for a day of sampling at Manglarito, Panama. Credit: Ivan Valiela


LJL from above: The Liquid Jungle Laboratory in is on the island of Isla Canales de Tierra, off the western coast of Panama. Credit: Ivan Valiela

dining room

LJL dining room: The dining room at the Liquid Jungle Laboratory, which was built by European entrepreneur and conservationist Jean Pigozzi. Credit: Ivan Valiela

aqua paradise

Aqua paradise: A view of the coastline of Bahia Honda, Panama. Credit: Ivan Valiela

A Bridge Between Land and Sea

In the tropics, Woods Hole Consortium scientists study the impact of deforestation on coastal waters

WOODS HOLE, MA—A remote tropical island is the site for one of the first scientific collaborations within the Woods Hole Consortium, an alliance between the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) to promote joint research and educational ventures.

Ivan Valiela of the MBL’s Ecosystems Center recently launched a three-year, National Science Foundation-funded study at the Liquid Jungle Laboratory (LJL), a high-tech field station on a small, exquisite island off the western coast of Panama. Built by European businessman Jean Pigozzi, the LJL operates under the scientific guidance of WHOI and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“It is an outstanding facility in the midst of, basically, nowhere,” says Valiela.

Valiela and his collaborators are studying how deforestation affects the flow of precipitation from land into mangrove estuaries, which are intermediate ecosystems between land and sea, similar to salt marshes in temperate zones. “Mangroves serve many ecological functions that subsidize or preserve water quality in coastal oceans,” Valiela says, such as support of fish and shellfish stocks.

“The mainland near the LJL, where Jean Pigozzi also owns land, is one of the few tropical places where you can still find entirely forested watersheds,” he says. “We can compare forested watersheds that empty into mangroves, with deforested watersheds that empty into mangroves, all within short travel times.”

“Ivan’s study is an excellent step in the Woods Hole Consortium direction,” says Larry Madin, Executive Vice President & Director of Research at WHOI. “All of the Consortium institutions have scientists interested in tropical systems, whether they be marine or terrestrial. The LJL can fit very well with the interests of all three institutions.”

Tropical forests are being logged or cleared at a rate of up to 2 percent per year worldwide, Valiela says. Besides releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, burning tropical forests to clear land for other uses, such as cattle farms, has other environmental impacts.

“When you remove forest cover, you allow precipitation to go through the landscape, down slope, to the shorelines. That water, like the blood in our system, carries things—nutrients, sediments—that make a big difference to coastal environments,” Valiela says.

Valiela has spent years studying water quality in Waquoit Bay in Falmouth, Mass., where urbanization is increasing the load of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, that runs off the land into coastal waters. “The LJL study is a natural outgrowth of our Waquoit Bay research,” he says. “We have a background in how the land, wetland, and offshore environments are coupled in a temperate place like Waquoit Bay. Now we are looking at similar coupled ecosystems in a tropical environment, where deforestation plays a far bigger role in changing land use than urbanization does.”

Joining Valiela in his study are Anne Giblin and Sophia Fox of MBL, Tom Stone of WHRC, and John Crusius of the U.S. Geological Survey-Woods Hole.

Pigozzi first approached WHOI in 2001 with the idea of building a marine laboratory on his land in Panama. “He was very taken with the natural beauty of the area, and he was interested in supporting research that would help to conserve those kinds of environments,” says Madin. Since 2004, WHOI has funded about $1 million in marine research at the LJL, and has also set up an underwater observatory there, called Pluto.

Located on the island of Isla Canales de Tierra, the LJL is about 155 miles southwest of Panama City. Reflecting Pigozzi’s interests in architecture and art (he is one of the world’s top collectors of African art), the LJL is sophisticated in design, with such green features as solar panels and an organic farm to supply the kitchen. A 20-minute boat ride away is the newly formed Coiba National Park, 400 square kilometers of protected islands and ocean that also provide outstanding research opportunities to scientists.


The MBL is a leading international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to discovery and to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, it is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Americas.