I’ve spent many hours, sharply bent to the sky, admiring the birds and how they so effortlessly raise themselves many meters above the ground. What a thrill that must be to be able to fly, and they probably take that ability for granted. I can only imagine how jealous the penguins and ostriches are, having been evolutionarily denied the hallmark characteristic of their avian brethren, but I digress. The point of all of this is that yesterday a young boy’s longtime dream of being able to fly came true. How you may ask? Our group visited one of the most impressive research sites operated by STRI: the canopy crane at Parque Natural Metropolitano (PNM). PNM is a 270 hectare secondary lowland deciduous forest park located immediately outside Panama City; the park was established in 1995 but the land that comprised the park has been relatively undisturbed for the past 80 years so it is a mature forest. The canopy crane is a standard construction crane with special open-air gondolas that can carry up to 6 people; it is 42 meters tall and the boom (the horizontal arm of the crane) is 51 meters long. This gives an interested researcher access to 1 hectare of total canopy area. Every tree in this 1 ha that is bigger than 10 cm has been documented and mapped which makes this location very well suited to studying forest dynamics. Tropical forest canopies are a very interesting research system. Forests canopies can represent important reserves of biodiversity that are poorly understood as there are many insects, epiphytes, and other organisms that are only found in tropical canopies that are undoubtedly providing us currently unknown ecosystem services. I was shocked to read that almost a third of the Earth’s land photosynthesis occurs in the canopies of tropical forests, accounting for about 18 gigatons of net carbon sequestration.
Riding in the canopy crane was one of the most exhilarating parts of our trip in Panama. We donned safety harnesses and climbed into the gondola in groups of 4 for a surprisingly smooth ride around the canopy of PNM. When the gondola was moving, I truly felt like I was flying, the ground moving 30 meters beneath my feet and the wind rushing through my luscious hair. From the top we had an impressive view of the nearby Panama City skyline. Our skilled operator maneuvered us to see many very interesting aspects of the forest that we simply could not view from the ground. We got up close and personal with a three toed sloth, unique flowers on the tops of trees, liana vines flourishing, and one group of students *allegedly* saw a troop of howler monkeys and a few toucans (but they aren’t the most credible bunch on our trip). The research mission of this equipment was not lost on me as we saw many marked and numbered branches and leaves on various plants in the canopy, an obvious component of someone’s study. My favorite aspect of the forest that we viewed from the canopy was a top down view of an opening in the canopy where a large tree had recently fallen and the early successional species were already rushing to take advantage of the strong sunlight hitting the ground before the gap would eventually close off again.
There was a man patiently waiting to head up in the canopy crane for his research studying lianas where he was about to spend 7 hours in the canopy, and I think it would be difficult to think of a better way to spend a day in the field.