I wonder what’s up there?

Five years ago I met an anteater that changed my life.

As a first-year grad student, I was in the midst of my academic identity crisis trying to figure out what exactly I was going to study. I joined a team of researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama to survey wildlife in tropical forests using motion-sensitive cameras, or “camera traps.” Passing animals trigger the cameras, and the photos allowed us to identify species, monitor their activity, and detect changes in their populations.

For this project, each camera had to be placed at a pre-assigned location, regardless of whether there were roads or trails to lead us there (which, frankly, there never were). One particular morning we spent a good four hours hacking our way through the forest, scrambling up and down muddy hillsides in search of our assigned point.

*Fun Fact* Dense canopy vegetation locks in moisture creating noticeably more humid air on the forest floor. Many researchers in tropical forests opt for rubber boots that do a great job of keeping rain and mud out, but throughout the day enough sweat collects in them that you have to periodically pour them out. You pour your own sweat out of your boots! Also, your toes prune up because they’ve spent the day in the most disgusting bathtub ever.

Anyway, when we arrived at our point, we set up the camera, and collapsed down for lunch. A sudden rustling from above made me turn to see an anteater traversing through the canopy – right over our camera.

It’s always great to see animals out in the forest, but after all that work it was deeply frustrating to know that this one was so close, but would not show up in the camera survey. However, this moment got me thinking about all the other animals we were ignoring by only focusing on the forest floor.

It turns out that the majority of mammals in tropical forests use the canopy to some extent – some live their entire lives up in the trees; others climb up for food, shelter, or to avoid predators; others regularly climb up and down, performing vertical migrations. The canopy provides critical habitat for a diverse community of arboreal (tree-dwelling) species, but it’s an area of the forest that is not well known to science.

The gap in our knowledge when it comes to the forest canopy is a function of inconvenience, not insignificance. We are well aware of the important role that many arboreal species play in the ecosystem. They eat fruit from trees and distribute the seeds across the forest, they transfer pollen between trees – their presence today affects how the forest regenerates in the future. That said, it is hard to collect data from the canopy, and that simple fact has been the main research barrier.

When it comes to wildlife, counting is at the heart of any ecological study or conservation plan. You want to know how many monkey species are out there? You have to go out and count them. You want to know whether their populations are changing? You have to wait a little while and go count them again. These numbers can provide us with the information we need to monitor and protect animals in the wild, but these datasets only exist for the places we are actually looking.

I spent the next several years learning about arboreal (tree-dwelling) wildlife, designing models to understand how animals move through their canopy habitat, and of course climbing trees and setting up cameras.

After all this effort I can safely say that there is a rather obvious reason why the canopy is still considered a bit of a research frontier – we’re not supposed to be up there! Our ancestors may have descended from the trees, but in the time since then we have grown clumsy and awkward.

Despite years of training and practice, it can take several hours to get a rope (and then myself) into a tree, and even longer to move around from branch to branch in order to set up cameras. I’ve watched a sloth traverse two trees over in the time it took me to move six feet in front of me.

a sloth passes me in the trees
Putting my ego aside as a sloth laps me in the trees. This gif is a re-creation based on actual events.

In Panama I ended up collecting over 3000 photos of arboreal species that had rarely (or never) shown up on the regular ground-based census. This wasn’t entirely surprising, but it highlighted the fact that even on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, a research reserve operated by the Smithsonian and perhaps the most studied place in the tropics, we are missing important information about a significant portion of forest wildlife. It also demonstrated that accessing the canopy, while inconvenient, is certainly not an insurmountable barrier.

In the upcoming year I will be expanding these canopy wildlife surveys to new sites in Malaysia and Ecuador. Both countries are home to some of the highest biodiversity regions in the world, where the canopy wildlife has not been extensively surveyed. In addition, the forests in these areas have faced threats from extractive industries, hunting, and agricultural development. As I collect data on the arboreal wildlife communities, I’m interested in learning how they may be uniquely affected as the environment around them changes.

Through photos, videos, writing, and data, I will share stories the nexus of science, conservation, and exploration. The expedition has already begun, and I invite you to follow along.