Saturday, July 13, 2013

Canopy Connection

A panoramic view of Panama City from atop the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's Canopy Crane Access System.

Looking back toward the crane tower from our gondola on the rotating arm.

A bromeliad living on a tree branch high above the Parque National Metropolitano.

Looking up at STRI's Canopy Crane Access System.

In the late 1990s, an energetic University of Florida botany professor named Stephen Mulkey hauled eight 1,500-watt lamps 40 meters above the forest canopy near Panama City using the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's Canopy Crane Access System. His goal was to trick the tree leaves into thinking they were in sunny El NiƱo conditions to see if they produced more fruit. Turns out, they did.

Today, I rode that very same crane into the canopy and saw a bromeliad from one of Stephen Mulkey's projects still flowering on a tree. When we returned to the ground, the crane operator told us that he regularly ferries faculty and students from UF into the canopy.

The experience reminded me that scientific research crosses many disciplinary boundaries. Bruce MacFadden is a paleontologist, but he was inspired to pursue research in Panama after a visit to STRI's facilities. The research program he has established in Panama with the support of the National Science Foundation offers opportunities for scientists, graduate students, undergraduates and school teachers with diverse scientific backgrounds to experience the Panamanian natural environment, whether it's using 20 million-year-old fossils or living flora and fauna.

Fact: The canopy crane at Parque Natural Metropolitano is located within a lowland semi-deciduous forest on the Pacific coast of the isthmus. This forest averages  about 68 inches of rain per year. The crane is 42 meters tall, with a boom length of 51 meters, and gives access to almost 1 hectare of forest and to approximately 80 species of trees and lianas.

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