Immersed in the clouds: Interview with tropical cloud forest researcher

There is a world within the canopy of a tropical cloud forest that not many people get to see. In this unique ecosystem—maintained by the exceptionally wet microclimate of cloud cover—orchids, moss, lichens and other epiphytes grow in every crease and pocket of the supporting tree branches. Here, hundreds of species of birds, along with monkeys and other mammals navigate the aerial landscape, scattering seeds along the way (see below video). (Resplendent Quetzal Canopy in the Clouds from Colin Witherill on Vimeo.) Greg Goldsmith, tropical plant ecologist from the University of California, Berkeley, spends his days harnessed in this “canopy in the clouds”—also the name of the interactive, educational website he is currently working on with photographer Drew Fulton and cinematographer Colin Witherill. The website, which explores the topical montane cloud forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica, will be launching a Spanish version called “Dosel en las Nubes” in the next couple of weeks. Goldsmith, who is the host in the Canopy in the Clouds videos, explains the microclimates, landscape, plants, pollinators, insects and the many other fascinating aspects of the forest. “I am still absolutely blown away by the sheer quantity of green that you see when you first walk into one of these forests,” said Goldsmith in a recent Ecological Society of America Field Talk podcast. “I am still amazed and still totally enthralled by the idea of seeing something I have never seen before, every single day. And that is a function of the incredible biodiversity that exists in this part of the world.” Thanks to the many hours of work from the crew, Canopy in the Clouds has numerous panoramic photographs embedded with short videos that describe a specific process or aspect of the forest. According to Drew Fulton’s photography website, “This group spent over 200 days in the field, bringing together [their] passions in pursuit of a new generation of science education media…” It was the first time Fulton and Witherill worked in the tropics. With the website completed, Goldsmith can guide visitors to experience a unique perspective within and above the canopy at the highest elevation—an area that is largely inaccessible without careful training. So, instead of telling a student that “the canopy is almost always immersed in this beautiful layer of clouds,” as Goldsmith said in the podcast, he is able to show them firsthand. Photo Credit: All photos copyright of Drew...

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Army ants, beard microbes and ant-mimicking jumping spiders

Army ant week: Biologist and photographer Alex Wild reported on army ants all last week  in a series of posts on his blog Myrmecos. In one post, he described how army ants link with one another using hooks on their feet: “When the time comes to encamp, they can string together living curtains of ants in a matter of minutes. Army ant bivouacs are made from the ants themselves, a vibrant structure that protects the vulnerable brood and maintains temperature within a single degree of optimal.” Read more or view photos at “Army Ants as Living Legos.” Funky pheromones: Chemical signals, as ecologist and blogger Tracey Switek put it in a recent post on The Olive Tree, “don’t have to just be scents that waft through the air…They can be toxins, which send a very clear signal either because they make the plant taste bad or outright kill or injure anything that tries to eat. We’re all familiar with the culinary herbs such as basil, mint, thyme, cilantro and sage… But the real purpose of those pungent chemicals is to discourage insect predation.” Chemical signals can change the behavior of a species in many ways—for example, pheromones on squid eggs can cause males to become aggressive at the slightest touch (see above video). Read more at “Everybody Stinks: Chemical Signaling in the Undergrowth” and at “Rage-inducing chemical on squid eggs turns males into violent thugs” by Not Exactly Rocket Science. Woody vines: Stefan Schnitzer from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and colleagues gathered data on the abundance of woody vine growth in American tropical and subtropical forests, and the cascading effects they had on biodiversity and water supply. According to a recent Live Science article, “It’s possible an increase in woody vines could change the nutrient dynamics of forests, in part because of differences between their leaves and the leaves of tropical trees, all of which ultimately fertilize the forest floor.” Read more at “Twisted Tropics: Growth of Vines Imperils Ecosystem.” Ant-mimicking spider: Michael Bok described the jumping spider, Myrmarachne plataleoides, in his blog Anthropoda. At first glance, the spider appears to be a red ant, but upon further examination, the  four pairs of legs become noticeable (see above video). “It makes up for a lack of antennae, and an overabundance of legs, by holding its forelegs up, alongside the head,” he wrote. “Its huge anterior medial eyes are colored to match the head when not viewed directly, and the posterior lateral eyes are enlarged, with darkened pigment around them to mimic an ant’s eyes. Also, the cephalothorax and abdomen are deformed and narrowed considerably.” Read more at...

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If you give a mouse an acorn…

The following is a story, but it describes a real scientific process: the relationship between acorns, mice, ticks and a bacterium. On a chilly November night, in a deciduous forest in the eastern U.S., a mouse prepares for the season ahead. More specifically, a female white-footed mouse—competing with other mice and animals for acorns—is reaping the fruits from a mast year: The oak trees in the region produced a generous blanket of acorns across the forest floor this autumn.

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