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The tropical toil behind an unprecedented data record

December 17, 2012

The tropical toil behind an unprecedented data record

Intended to catch leaves, seeds and fruit, the half square-meter traps on Barro Colorado Island's 50-hectare plot are short-term repositories for anything that falls from the forest's canopy

Osvaldo Calderón recoils as a frog springs from mosquito-mesh leaf trap and shoots a stream of urine. “It's a defense mechanism,” suggests Osvaldo, wiping his brow before carefully exploring the trap for more critters. Intended to catch leaves, seeds and fruit, the half square-meter traps on Barro Colorado Island's 50-hectare plot are short-term repositories for anything that falls from the forest's canopy. They are also apt to hold the occasional snake that slithers up the PVC frame to munch on a suspended frog.

On this particular morning, Osvaldo counts seeds. It's low season for tree reproduction and his trap tour is over in a couple of hours. Some days, however, he's at the traps well into the afternoon, jotting endless numbers on forms held by a clipboard. Since 1988, STRI research assistant Osvaldo has conducted 360,000 trap censuses, walked 20,000 kilometers, and identified more than 10 million leaves, flowers, seeds and fruits to species on BCI. He is the elder statesman of STRI scientist Joe Wright's lab team. “Their dedication and continuity of service have enabled unique data sets,” says Joe.

They endure bug swarms, bone-soaking storms and invisible parasites that penetrate fingers, causing sleepless nights as hands turn painfully red. The conditions have turned many a foreign researcher back to temperate homes. They've also amassed deep knowledge of the forest. Research technician Rufino González deftly guides the uninitiated through the Latin names of BCI's vast cache of seemingly identical shrubs. Fellow technician Omar Hernández relishes observing the ever-changing forest. “It's incredible,” he says. “There are so many changes, every year.”

Every seed trap can hold something new. “Never say you know 100 percent of what there is here,” says Osvaldo, recalling having to germinate seeds to find out what species they were. He still has unidentified seeds stored in the lab. “You are always going to find something different.”

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