High in the canopy of a Neotropical Panamanian forest, researchers have discovered that birds, especially native ones during the rainy season, protect trees by reducing the numbers of leaf-eating insects.
A Colobura dirce caterpillar feeding on the underside of a Cecropia leaf in the forest canopy in Panama. The caterpillar is among the many insects "cleaned" off leaves by birds. (Photo by Sunshine A. Van Bael)
Sunshine Van Bael, inside a gondola attached to a canopy crane, looks into an "exclosure" to monitor insect damage to leaves high in a Panamanian forest. (Photo by Michael Libsch)
The finding -- being published this week on the Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- was a mild surprise, said researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That birds help crops and low-lying plants in temperate forests by devouring insects had been known. However, many scientists had theorized that the rich diversity of life in tropical forests would diffuse any significant contributions by birds.
Worldwide, but especially in Neotropical forests, bird populations are declining amid forest fragmentation as areas are cleared for ranching, farming or housing. The yearlong research project, the first to study bird-arthropod interactions in a Neotropical forest canopy, was carried out by Sunshine A. Van Bael, a doctoral student in animal biology at Illinois and a research fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Jim Barlow | UIUC
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