For years, a Franklin & Marshall College biologist and her students have traveled to the jungled mountains of Central America to sling ropes over the branches of tall trees, fasten harnesses, and pull themselves up high to study the forest in the clouds.
"I'm trying to understand how the changes in climate are affecting the functions of the cloud forest,” Assistant Professor of Biology Sybil Gotsch said, seated in her office at F&M.
This year, the National Science Foundation has recognized the importance of Gotsch’s research and awarded the College a $404,000 grant for a multi-institutional collaborative research project on which Gotsch is the lead investigator. Findings from this work would help with conservation efforts.
Gotsch recently returned from another trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, where her research brings her deep into one of the montane cloud forests. Cloud forests comprise just 1 percent the planet’s woodlands, yet are biodiverse ecosystems vulnerable to land-use and climate change.
“We care a lot about the montane cloud forest because it is an enormous repository of biodiversity with tons of endemic species and a vital hydrology,” Gotsch said.
“The cloud forest acts as a sponge so when you have heavy rainfall, this really lush environment emerges,” she said. “The trees are covered with moss, but high up in the trees there's this soil that develops over decades that is between 30-50 centimeters, and on top of that soil there's a forest, a miniature forest on top of the trees in the forest. The whole forest acts as a sponge. When you have huge storms, it buffers run-off and keeps the water in the ground for longer periods, trickling down to the stream system, which maintains consistent stream-flows year round."
When Gotsch and her students pull themselves up into the cloud forest, located as high as 1,700 meters (about 5,500 feet) above the forest floor, they find a community of epiphytes, plants that live on other plants.
“Epiphytes are important because they are the first plant group that is capturing water from the clouds,” she said. “They capture water, they capture nutrients, they create habitat for a lot of wildlife – dozens of species of birds. They are potentially the most vulnerable plant group in that ecosystem, though, because they don't have roots that go to the ground. They rely on what's coming in from the air, and they developed this soil system over decades. To understand what component of the cloud forest is most going to be affected by climate change, you have to go to the epiphytes. What we're trying to do is understand how important this mini-ecosystem is to the functioning of the cloud forest and how vulnerable this community is to changes in climate."
Gotsch first explored cloud forests as a postdoctoral researcher in 2009 when she studied trees in Mexico’s cloud forest to determine whether leaves on trees can absorb water from the clouds. She began this project at F&M in 2012.
"When I started this work, I realized how much we don't know about epiphytes,” the biologist said. “So I just started getting into the physiology to understand this unique environment."
The research now involves more manipulative experiments to understand the components of an ecosystem that has more than 800 species of plants, many of which are yet to be identified, she said.
"We are studying different functional groups to understand the way the community works and which members of the community would be lost to changes in the climate,” Gotsch said. "Then we can think about conservation strategies."