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Neotropical Forest Monitoring Project Sights and stories by Cassidy Rankine, PhD Student

Need a rugged environmental wireless sensor network for detecting changes in tropical ecosystems? Call Cassidy Rankine.

January 2013, Earth Observation Systems Laboratory Earth and Atmospheric Science Department


Cassidy Rankine, PhD Student Earth Observation Systems Laboratory Earth and Atmospheric Science Department “As my scientific career progresses and my international network expands I have come to better understand the responsibilities the global research community has for guiding the public towards a sustainable future where the boundaries of society and nature do not conflict in such a way that we see today.�


Cassidy Rankine, PhD Student “My research is embracing the technological revolution the ecological sciences are currently undergoing to improve our ability to adapt and respond to rapid environmental changes.” I'm a native Albertan, with my BSc in Animal Biology from the U of A ( 2010). Beginning in my senior undergraduate year, I started working in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, and Argentina installing meteorological sensor. I’m now in my 3rd year of graduate studies in the U of A’s Earth and Atmospheric Science department, working on my PhD thesis studying tropical forest regeneration using emerging Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) technology and advanced optical remote sensing techniques for environmental monitoring. I’m doing my research in Earth Observation Systems. Our lab uses satellite and airborne imagery to understand land use and land cover changes in relation to global ecology. As part of recent collaborations between our lab and the Computing Science and Electrical Engineering Departments, we’ve developed autonomous Wireless Sensor Network technology for non-intrusive, real-time automated monitoring of ecosystem health ranging from the Canadian Arctic to the American tropics. I am also currently collaborating with IBM, Microsoft Research and more recently the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. More info: •

Tropi-Dry, dedicated to bringing together researchers in conservation biology, sponsored by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI).

The Dry Forest Laboratory of Dr. Sánchez-Azofeifa

Center for Earth Observation Sciences (CEOS)


The forgotten tropical forests. When most people hear about tropical forests they picture the well known rainforests and almost never consider their endangered dry counterpart which endure months of drought each year yet are home to a vast diversity of plants and animals, many of which are still unknown to science. Tropical dry forests once covered half of the world’s tropics but are now the most threatened tropical ecosystem as a result of intense human settlement and extensive land cover conversion for agricultural. With less than 1% of these forests protected in the Americas, the deforestation rates are often greater than those of tropical rainforests. Conservation in Latin American and the Tropi-Dry Project. A project spearheaded by the University of Alberta’s director of the Center for Earth Observation Sciences, Dr. Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa has assembled a team to study how semi-arid deforested land is naturally regenerating across Latin America since 2001 using advanced space-borne and in-situ remote sensing techniques.


My Phd work in a nutshell. I have been travelling in central and south America as part of the Tropi-Dry project since 2009 spending months at a time in tropical dry forests collecting data for my thesis. This monitoring initiative uses advanced in-situ sensor networks for micrometeorology and forest phenology, tracking changes in climate and forest productivity to better assess disturbance resilience and forest regeneration to promote current and future sustainability of these poorly studied ecosystems. In addition, my work aims to validate earth observation satellite data so that seasonally dry ecosystems can be better used to detect the impacts of climate change in tropical environments.


Field sites across the research network. The Tropi-Dry research network is comprised of protected areas of Tropical Dry Forest for conservation research across Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, and Argentina to obtain insights over a latitudinal gradient of these endangered ecosystems throughout the Neotropics. Over the last 10 years each study site has played host to intensive ecological, social and remote sensing research to bring about a state of the art understanding of these environments. I have been managing the ground based remote sensing teams across most of these sites since 2009.


The great annual transformation. From barren branches to voracious vegetation, our instruments have measured the transition from dry season dormancy to growing season greenness takes place in under 10 days from the first leaf buds to a fully mature tropical canopy. With this sudden change comes drastic explosions in animal life and the renewed livelihoods of local communities.


Driving into the Tropical Dry Forest conservation park MG, Brazil. After one of the world’s largest irrigation projects was created in this drought stricken region of south east Brazil, several protected areas were created as compensation. Here we are entering the park at the beginning of April, the last month of the rainy season when roads are forgiving. It will not rain here for another 6 months.


Building an understory microclimate monitoring station. July in south eastern Brazil is the middle of the winter dry season and the once lush forest (left) becomes golden and crispy as it bakes for months in the relentless tropical sun. Nearly all the trees are completely deciduous leaving little to no shade for refuge as the canopy disappears. Here I am with my field assistant (Marco Tulio S. Vieira) dressed head to toe to ward off biting flies and bees that seek our sweat in the 30-40째C dry sauna.


Tropical insects, the most extraordinary nuisance. As evident by the photos, insects are often the most difficult part of job when working in a tropical forest. In these semi-arid forests any source of moisture is sought out, often at my dismay. Tiny salt bees will fly into your eyes, ears, mouth and nose and can make it near impossible to accomplish anything in good time.


A bird’s eye view of the canopy. My shadow falls far below as I sit 20m atop one of the many phenology towers we have built to observe the seasonal changes in forest canopy conditions. Using optical sensor that stay up here year-round we obtain valuable light reflectance data from which we can tell greenness and therefore photosynthetic potential of the forest. Not a job for the faint of heart but the view cannot be beat (below).


A giant’s belly, adapted to drought. The most recognizable trees in the landscape of Minas Gerais state, Brazil, are affectionately called barriguda meaning ‘potbellied’ (Malvaceae family). These bottle shaped behemoths have hollow trunks capable of storing water for the dry season. Knocking on one produces an entertaining drum-like resonance. Below I indulge in some locally grown tangerines beside the barriguda I call Big B with my field assistants from the University of Montes Claros whom we share close research collaborations with.


Light in the forest understory. Tropical dry forests can often be distinguished from tropical moist forests by the density of vegetation in the understory. Dry forest canopies are typically more open allowing light through for understory plants to thrive. Unfortunately for my work this makes running around in the forest collecting data extremely difficult as most underbrush species are equipped with spines which do their best to prevent me from going anywhere fast.


BBQs and deforestation. You might not think that a weekend cookout could cause so much trouble but indeed the market for this inefficient, cheap fuel in many tropical regions drives the development of illegal charcoal camps like the one pictured here. Large tracts of forest are cut and burnt in these camps often found in rural areas where forest protection enforcement is minimal. We drove by this one on the way to one of our most remote monitoring stations in a protected watershed called Pandeiros, Brazil.


Electronics and tropical forests do not mix. After a day in the forest checking on the equipment, downloading data, and installing new sensors my evenings are often spent attempting to repair electronics that mother nature has chewed up and spit out. Water-tight ratings do not often mean much when insects eat anything made of rubber or plastic and monkeys like to inquire with their teeth. It tends to be an uphill battle trying to obtain a full year’s data set as with each season we discover a new way to break a data logger.


Looking out over Rupestrian Fields in the Brazilian Highlands. These ancient landscapes in the Serra do Espinhaรงo Mountain Range have escaped glaciation for millennia. As a result, many unique plant taxa are found here isolated from the rest of the world. Our research employs remote sensing of ecophysiology to determine how these ecosystems at higher elevations are responding to climate change and coping with invasive species due to road developments.


Clever camouflage. This little tree frog I found (right) while building a new monitoring tower in abandoned pasture has coloration that very closely resembles the lichen species on the tree branches. Amazingly, as I approached him he crept forward placing his head exactly in line with an existing patch of lichen completing the shape and blending in almost perfectly. The smirk on his face makes me think this was no accident, but rather an all too impressive disappearing act.


Perched in the Panama Canal. Harnessed to a thin tower 45m above a 100 year old tropical rainforest reserve I place a quantum sensor poised to measure incoming photosynthetic radiation above a canopy riddled with Howler Monkeys. The primates were none pleased with my ascent into the canopy but I was glad it was only their songs of horrible discontent that followed me up the carbon flux tower. Barro Colorado Island, operated by the U.S. Federal Smithsonian Institute, is situated in the man-made Lake Gatun in the Panama Canal and is one of the world’s most well renowned Tropical Research sites.


Debris and Decomposers. Unlike the deep fertile soils of temperate forests, most of the biomass in a tropical ecosystem is above ground. High temperatures and the diversity of invertebrates means that anything that falls to the forest floor is quickly degraded and recycled in the ecosystem. Our scientific instruments are not exempt from this rule and I often find my equipment left for one year looks as though it has been abandoned for decades.


Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Green as far as the eye can see is a familiar sight in the panama canal, even at the waters edge the tropical vegetation demands a presence. This is the view from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute field station in Panama. Its very peaceful until the howler monkeys have their say, and when they do there is nowhere on the island you can escape their haunting calls.


“Honey I shrunk the biologists”. Here in Panama things are larger than life. I spent my 25th birthday last January hiking amongst some of the largest tropical trees in the world placing networks of mini sensors to monitor canopy growth and productivity dynamics. Although I seem small next to this 50m tall monster, this is the second largest resident on the island, second only to the one the locals have creatively dubbed “the big tree”.


Lasers in the jungle. I came to panama on an initiative to estimate understory light conditions using high intensity dual scanning lasers which were flown over the forest canopy aboard an airplane. My work was to install ground based sensors to validate the laser data across a 50Ha study plot. Once everything was in place I had hiked over 60km in steamy terrain like that seen here.


Sunset on the Panama Canal. Still one of the most impressive engineering feats of the modern world, the completion of the 77km Panama Canal in 1914 positioned the United States as a global economic power for the first time in history. Currently the canal is being doubled in size, once again threatening tropical biodiversity. We must stop and wonder what is really being traded here.


Night time in Panama. The hyper-diverse tropical rainforests forests in the isthmus of Panama are unlike any other place in the world. You will see things at night you might imagine from another world. This tree frog sits calmly as I snapped his photo, my last night on Barro Colorado Island.


Anolis En garde, Mexico. After setting up a microclimate sensor network in our study plot in the Chamela Biosphere Reserve (below) I stopped to watch a pair of male anolis lizards fight over a perching place, perhaps an ideal spot to pick up a pretty lady lizard. Things went on for several minutes and got quite heated when finally one of the males bit the other one hard enough for him to jump to the ground. The victor reared his head and proudly displayed his dewlap for all to see, revelling in his triumph (left).


The wonders of late night jungle hikes. After the sun sets, the forest really comes alive. A headlamp is useful to light your way, but be warned, your headgear may be much more attractive than you might think. This giant silk moth found me all to easily in the dark.


Where form doesn’t always meet function. To the left is a photo I took of a frog while on a night hike in the Chamela forest reserve, aptly known as the spade-faced frog, no one is sure why their snout is shaped this way. I like to think it actually uses its shovel nose to dig in the dirt for its meals. Below, a giant land snail glides along the forest understory. These molluscs are only found in the old growth dry forests and can grow to have shells the size of a baseball.


Entomologists Paradise. My bachelors degree was in animal biology at the U of A and after having spent weeks on end in some of the research parks in Mesoamerica I can easily say the most impressive group of animals in the tropical dry forests are the insects. No matter how many times I return to these places I still come across new critters that I could not have, in my wildest dreams, imagined to exist. From mystic morphologies to bat-crazy behaviours, the bugs never ceased to impress and amaze me.


Cacti on calcareous outcrops. Where bedrock meets the air no trees can root and these unique islands of succulents and stone emerge in the midst of a dense forest, Minas Gerais, Brazil.


A sweet symbiosis. In highly competitive environments plants and animals adapt very interesting collaborations. On the right we see several ants on a tree trunk sipping dew produced by the pink scale insect. The scale insect is immobile as it grows into the tree to tap the sugary juices, as a reward for guarding it from predators, the sap insect provides food for the soldier ants. Having learned of such relationships in ecology class you can only imagine my delight when I discovered that I could actually apply my knowledge of weird and wonderful things.


More than Jedi mind tricks. This unfortunate specimen I photographed had fallen victim to one of the most interesting yet bewildering acts of nature. This ant became infected by a fungus capable of taking over its mind. The parasite forces the ant to climb upwards to a vantage point where it then clings to a branch and perishes. After which the fungus produced its fruiting body protruding from the neck of the ant to better spread its fungal spores. How this intricate reproductive technique is achieved, no one yet understands.


Rainbows and rain gauges. Pictured on the right is a weather monitoring station installed in 2007 in the Mata Seca State Park, Brazil. This station serves as a control for our understory microclimate monitoring networks throughout the adjacent forest. Several times now I had had to suit up in my mesh outfit and clean out the wasps which love to nest in our rain gauges. Sometimes I feel mother nature tries her best not to reveal all her secrets.


Eucalyptus dry forest flux tower view, Victoria State, Australia. In June of 2012 our team went to install the first environmental wireless sensor network in Australia (sensor node on right). Here is the view south from a 35m tall carbon flux monitoring tower. Australia is known for their annual bush fires fuelled by the intense droughts and the flammable, often explosive, saps secreted by the eucalyptus trees.


Tropi-Dry techniques finally arrive in Alberta. The Alberta Government approves a new carbon and ecosystem exchange monitoring site in Alberta, just north of Peace River. We installed the latest technology in wireless sensor networks in the fall of 2012 streaming the environmental real-time data back to our labs at the University of Alberta.


Sunset in the Dry Forest. High atmospheric aerosol loads are not uncommon in the seasonally dry tropics, often a result of anthropogenic burning and agricultural activities that stir up dust, a substance I know all too well after working in these environments. Consequently, I find myself staring at stunning sunsets most nights in the dry forest, as if our presence here signals both beauty and beguile. One thing is for certain though, I have been enchanted by these forests, not just by the amazing things I have learned, but more so by what I know is waiting to be discovered.

U of A Grad Student, Cassidy Rankine  

Earth Observation Systems Laboratory Earth and Atmospheric Science Department

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