Changing Planet

Walking in the Clouds

What do a forest ecologist, a photographer and a cinematographer have in common?  A deeply rooted passion for education, art and conservation! Their shared interests have brought them to a pretty unique place. For the last three years, Greg, Drew and Colin have been working in the canopy of the trees in one of the most important tropical montane cloud forests in the world.  What they discovered in the forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica, is a unique perspective on life in the clouds.

“What’s so striking about tropical montane cloud forests, especially with respect to the forest canopy, is how many species still remain to be discovered. As a scientist, it’s this sense of discovery that motivates much of my work.” said Greg Goldsmith.

The amazing strangler fig tree begins it’s life in the clouds. It slowly grows downward, over the host tree, depriving it from light and moisture. These trees are extremely tall and make up much of the canopy in Monteverde’s cloud forest. Although it is known for taking the life of the host, it serves as the foundation for hundreds of animal and plant species that make their home up in the clouds. (photo by Fabio Esteban Amador).


Tropical montane cloud forests are one of the world’s rarest ecosystems. Consider that about 23% of the planet is covered by land. Of that land, about 12% of it is covered by tropical forests. Of those tropical forests, about 22% occur in the mountains. Of those tropical mountains, about 12% are constantly covered in a thick layer of clouds. At the end of the day, tropical montane cloud forests probably only cover about 0.14% of the planet’s land surface! But beyond their rarity, what’s so important about tropical montane cloud forests?

Canopy in the Clouds is a chance to share the natural history of one of the most amazing ecosystems I have ever visited and the excitement and adventure of performing scientific fieldwork with students around the world.” Drew Fulton told NG news.

These unique and fragile ecosystems are home to an incredible number of animals and plants, many of which are found nowhere else on the planet. For example, in an area roughly equivalent to Central Park in New York City, Montverde has more than 700 tree species (about the same number of native tree species in the entire United States). Monteverde’s inhabitants include renowned birds such as the Resplendent Quetzal and Three-Wattled Bellbird, rare frogs such as the Bare-Hearted Glass Frog, and elusive animals such as the Baird’s Tapir. These species are currently at risk of disappearing due to minute changes in temperature and precipitation that may greatly alter the balance of life in the clouds.  Without a doubt, the cause of this imbalance is global climate change, and its effects could literally push life off the mountain peaks.

“The impressive nature of the cloud forest took a while to sinc in for me; it is hard to dial up the excitement level when hundreds of scientific plant names are being tossed around! However, the task of translating the coolness of this place to a wider audience became an awesome drive behind making fun, dynamic images.” Colin Witherill said in an interview.


Survey in the forest is quite difficult. In fact, it has taken Eladio Cruz, center in photograph, 40 years to learn all of the species of trees in Monteverde’s cloud forest. Other team members helping Greg conduct survey include Sergio Vargas, Cristian Mena and Francis Joyce. (photo by Fabio Esteban Amador)


National Geographic grantees Greg Goldsmith (YEG CRE, NGS/Waitt, forest ecologist), Drew Fulton (YEG EC, photographer and professional climber) and Colin Witherill (cinematographer) are building a research and education program in the cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Their project is called Canopy in the Clouds. It seeks to educate the public about the importance of ecology and conservation by raising awareness of the beauty and fragility of the forest using media from the cloud forest canopy.  Greg, Drew and Colin‘s goal is visionary, their enthusiasm is exemplary, their laughter is contagious and their aim is sincere, “we must inspire people to take an interest in these beautiful, hidden corners of the planet, before it’s too late”.

For more information please visit Canopy in the Clouds and  Monteverde through Costa Rica’s Tropical Science Center.


Fabio Esteban Amador is an archaeologist, science communicator and visual artist. He uses visualization tools to get people excited about seeing, understanding and preserving their world and history. He is currently using gigapan technology, underwater imaging systems and aerial photography and video to capture art and culture around the world. Lately he has focused in the development of a new concept, strategy and workshop called the Art of Communicating Science, aimed at using creativity and visual technologies in exploration, discovery and story telling. He started his career as an art student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and followed his interests in becoming an expedition artist by graduating as an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Lately, he has focused on the archaeology and exploration of caverns in Quintana Roo, Mexico, photo-mosaicking shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean and capturing images and video from aerial platforms to document archaeological sites to create digital elevation models. Amador’s continued effort in communicating science has allowed him to use photography, cinematography and other multi-media tools to reach large audiences through his public lectures at universities, presentations at international scientific and professional symposia, publications in scholarly journals and on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and NatGeo News Watch online blogs. Currently, he is a senior program officer for the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, promoting and coordinating scientific and exploratory research around the world. He is also an associate research professor at George Washington University and Executive Director and President of Fundacion OLAS, an organization devoted to capacity building for Latin American scholars dedicated to the study and preservation of the submerged cultural heritage.
  • Jacob Lovell

    Awesome, very inspiring work! Nice job Colin and friends.

  • David Ghosh

    Canopy in the cloud in Costarica’s is wonderful and amazing.
    Thanks to NG and the guys Colin and others.
    With out NG and team,we never known the forest and wildlife.
    It is excellent.

  • Roslynn Rubin Ed.D

    Beautiful and inspiring – best wishes on continued successful climbs and great photos.

  • carol patterson

    Living at the Base of Arenal Volcano on the Cerro Chato side, I thank you for this wonderful work and photographs. I am always explaining the ever changing Rainforest to my Friends in the United States, this information is so spectacular.
    Thanks for the Great Work and I live 300 yards from the Protected Rainforest come walk this side bring a camera we do everyday…Pura Vida and thanks for bringing awareness to the Environment…

  • The Wrights

    Wow this is wicked cool! It looks like you had a lot of fun filming it and keep up the good work!

  • Anna Thorpe

    The words and photos combine to make this beautiful and fragile environment come alive for all those who have had the wonderful opportunity to see this feature and explore the website.

  • […] cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica, to teach and inspire the next generation of scientists. The NewsWatch article, “Walking in the Clouds,” also mentions Francis Joyce ’13, who […]

  • […] National Geographic funds Canopy in the Clouds through two Young Explorer grants. […]

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