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HOW BUSY IS THE CANOPY HIGHWAY?

March 31, 2014

HOW BUSY IS THE CANOPY HIGHWAY?

In the first year of his Ph.D., Kevin McLean hiked through Panama’s Soberania National Park and set camera traps to capture stills of ground-dwelling animals

In the first year of his Ph.D., Kevin McLean hiked through Panama’s Soberania National Park and set camera traps to capture stills of ground-dwelling animals. During one arduous trek, he paused to survey the surroundings where a camera was just installed. A tamandua climbed through the foliage right above it, failing to trip the shutter. Though a bit disappointed, the incident gave him an idea: Why not put camera traps on tree limbs high in the canopy?

One computer model, three professional tree-climbing courses and two years later, McLean is doing just that. Now about the only creatures more nimble than McLean in the crown of massive Dipteryx trees on Barro Colorado Island are the spider monkeys. “I sure hope we don’t run into any while we’re up here,” said the Ph.D. student at Yale, glancing over his shoulder at rustling branches a few meters away as he installed three cameras 25 meters above the forest floor.

Spider monkeys, which have been known for the occasional attack on researchers, aren’t fond of human trespassers in the canopy highway, the thoroughfare they use while traveling the forest. They show up regularly in his trap photographs, along with tamanduas, porcupines, sloths, opossums, and the abundant-butelusive kinkajou — one of which almost dismantled a camera this season.

A whole layer of tropical fauna, especially the mainly nocturnal animals, might be underrepresented by traditional camera trap and mammal census methods. McLean hopes to change this. “Latin American forests have the highest diversity of treedwelling animals in the world,” said McLean, whose work aims to help better monitor their populations. “And the only way to do that is actually to get into that habitat.”

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