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Article: How do tropical rain forests work? Shinichi Asao

by Shinichi Asao

I think curiosity is one of the characteristics that defines us as scientists in general.  Ecologists in particular are curious about nature. But I didn’t know how much until I was involved in research in a tropical rain forest.  I was fortunate enough to spend a few months at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, as part of a project called ECOS, looking at how tree species influence the ways carbon cycled in the forest. This involved going up a scaffolding tower to measure CO2 coming out of the trunk, branches, and leaves of the trees (we had to build the tower first, and then take it down to build it back up in another location). So I was in a tropical rain forest, building towers, measuring things, and wondering, how do tropical rain forests work?

I thought about this question a lot in the forest.  It’s partly because I spent a lot of time at the top of the tower, on a 3 by 6 ft platform.  It didn’t allow for much moving at the top, creating an ideal target for the insects that wanted to eat me.  





There was a kind of mosquito that had metallic blue color with black and white feathers.  It was there almost everyday (I don’t remember getting bit by it, probably because it was big and slow enough for me to swat at and even to catch).  A lot of different kinds of flies were there too.  One had green and deep red eyes, and it bit hard.  Another had a long proboscis as big as a hypodermic needle, and it would bite through clothing.  They were annoying, but they also made me wonder.  How does the mosquito survive, being so slow yet so shiny and colorful? Why are the eyes so colorful on the flies?  What’s the normal prey for the fly with proboscis?  For that matter, what are they doing up in the canopy?

Rest assured, my advisors, I was thinking about the trees as well.  I mention the insects here because they made me realize that the questions were more exciting than the creatures or the plants themselves.  The questions were what I thought about when I thought about the organisms.  I wanted to know the answers. Tropical rain forests are some of the coolest places on Earth, and I was and still am curious about how they work. I think it’s fun to think about it.