Oct. 1, 2003 Of the 10 million plus species thought to exist on this planet, a mere 2 million are known to science. Others dwell in inaccessible locations--deep sea vents or hard-to-reach tropical treetops. To collect the best information available to date on tropical forest insects and their habitats, thirty researchers will use state-of-the-art canopy access techniques to sample nine 400m2 patches of Panamanian rainforest from September 22-October 31, 2003.
Biologists will dangle from the gondola of a 56m tall construction crane, hang sticky traps from the booms of a massive treetop raft, slide along through the trees suspended from a helium balloon and perch in a tree house. They will fog with insecticide, shake and hand pick the greenery and collect leaf litter and soil samples from the forest floor to understand the vertical stratification of insects throughout the dark understory, striving subcanopy and emergent canopy.
The IBISCA project, Investigating Biodiversity of Soil and Canopy Arthropods, lead by Dr. Yves Basset, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and Dr. Bruno Corbara, Canopy Raft Consortium, in addition to a 7 member technical team, involves 30 researchers from 15 countries. Solvin-Bretzel (makers of PVC) and the Smithsonian sponsor the 5-week project conducted in the San Lorenzo Protected Area on Panama's Caribbean coast.
STRI's Sherman Canopy Crane, in operation since 1997, is the site of ongoing surveys of tropical plant and animal life, seasonal change and photosynthesis. Three 400m2 sites within the reach of its 54m boom will be sampled by the team. A helicopter will lower the Solvin-Bretzel Canopy Raft, a 400m2 platform of PVC pontoons covered with netting--onto the treetops. The mobility of the raft makes it possible to sample three additional 400m2 sites during the mission. The Canopy Bubble consists of a seat harness suspended from a helium balloon that moves along a 1 km transect and will be used to reach two more 400m2 sites. And finally, a fixed icosohedral tree house will make an additional sample possible.
The National Museum of Natural History's Terry Erwin first estimated global insect biodiversity some twenty years ago in Panama. Researchers at STRI continued to pioneer canopy research with the placement of the first Canopy Crane system in Panama City's Parque Metropolitano in 1990. IBISCA is one of the first exhaustive attempts to understand the relationship between habitats within the forest.
Unlike the undersea world, now visited by scuba divers, submarines and remotely operated vehicles, gravity works against terrestrial explorers. Francis Hallé, well known for his work on tropical tree architecture, says "it is essential that researchers experience this reality first hand. This technology places us in the treetops where these animals live."
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), with headquarters in Panama City, Panama, is one of the world's leading centers for basic research on the ecology, behavior and evolution of tropical organisms. http://www.stri.org
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