Rainforest Canopy Ecology

Rainforest Canopy Ecology



Civic Engagement


University of Louisville


Researchers: Steve Yanoviak, Max Adams, and Evan Gora

Research in the Yanoviak lab at the University of Louisville focuses on the ecology of the tropical rainforest canopy. This uppermost layer of the forest harbors the bulk of global insect diversity, provides essential ecosystem services, and functions as the interface between the biosphere and the atmosphere. We collaborate with physicists, engineers, and other ecologists to develop innovative approaches to answer three canopy-focused questions: How do the physical challenges of life in treetops shape animal behavior and morphology? How does forest structure affect insect diversity in trees? Is lightning a key agent of disturbance in tropical forests? We discovered the aerodynamic mechanisms for flight in wingless insects using a vertical wind tunnel, we showed that tree crowns function as islands for ants using a large-scale forest experiment, and we quantified lightning damage to trees via a unique video network. The majority of this ongoing research has been completed at the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) field station in Panama. BCI is administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where Steve Yanoviak, Ph.D., holds a research associate position in addition to his faculty position at the University of Louisville. The team highlights the research projects listed above using large-format poster and LCD video-based visual displays. The posters summarize key discoveries, while the continuous-loop videos highlight the spectacular nature of the forest canopy and feature short interviews with lab members working in the field. These displays are supported by personal interactions with graduate students and Yanoviak. An interactive portion of the display includes an assortment of the equipment used to ascend into the rainforest canopy and standard tools for collection of ecological field data. These items are accompanied by demonstration boxes of pinned insects representing the diversity of arthropods encountered in the team’s work. This exhibit demonstrates the novelty and breadth of scientific research that can be accomplished in the rainforest canopy and the remarkably innovative questions and discoveries that can be pursued with relatively simple tools.