Between 1910 and 1912, in what could be considered one of the first significant environmental impact studies, the Smithsonian conducted a comprehensive Biological Survey of Panama, to document the native flora and fauna of the isthmus prior to the completion of the Panama Canal. Naturalists across the United States had expressed concerns that the opening of the Canal would irrevocably alter the natural conditions of the land-bridge between North and South America. The Smithsonian took the lead, writing to President Theodore Roosevelt for support for a biological survey before the opening of the Canal.
Secretary of the Smithsonian Charles Doolittle Walcott declared, “When the canal is completed the organisms of the various watersheds [of the Isthmus of Panama, some of which emptied into the Pacific and others of which emptied into the Atlantic] will be offered a ready means of mingling together, the natural distinctions now existing will be obliterated, and the data for a true understanding of the fauna and flora placed forever out of reach.”
Museums and universities, notably the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, supported the project. The original aim of the survey was to make an inventory of the flora and fauna of the Panama Canal Zone, but thanks to an invitation from the Republic of Panama the survey was extended to all the national territory. The resulting research would provide a baseline of data for the entire region prior to the completion of the Canal in 1914 ...
Text courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution