Side Gig: Canopy Tour Guide

One of the many safety precautions I take in my work is to never climb alone. Sometimes that just means bringing someone else into the forest to hang out on the ground while I battle the ropes, branches, string, ants, and any number of other hazards above. Whenever possible, however, I like to bring people up into the tree with me. It does add a bit of extra work on my part (I usually climb up to set their rope, then climb back down so we can ascend together), but the opportunity to show other people the environment I work in and witness their reactions makes it worthwhile.

Over the past couple weeks there have been some student groups coming through the research station, including a wildlife photography class from Pontifica Universidad Católica del Ecuador (often known simply as Católica) which owns and operates the station. Coincidentally, there was also a group of students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, my own alma mater.

I was not able to bring everyone up, but I did by best to accommodate those who were interested. In all I brought a total of 31 students and other volunteers at the station into the trees over the course of about a week, which meant I went up and down just shy of 40 times.

I brought more than thirty students, staff, and other visitors into the canopy with me over the course of a week. It was a lot of fun, but I am exhausted.

Most of the Católica students were in the biology department and were taking the photography class as a means of communicating science. I asked many of them to comment on or, whenever possible, document their own experience in the canopy. Some took photos while climbing*, some took photos of others climbing, a few students took photos from the canopy tower (a permanent structure built nearby), and the course leader broke out his drone. I also had the pleasure of climbing with Rubén Jarrín, an amazingly talented professional photographer who has worked extensively in Yasuní. He was kind enough to contribute some of his photos here as well.

Researchers at Católica are interested in expanding their investigations in the canopy, and there’s always a chance, however small, that this first formative experience could spark interest in canopy research…or so I hope.

*I should mention that it is not easy to take photos while dangling from a rope, particularly when you just learned how to get up there, but some of the shots that they produced were really impressive (unlike the blurry, sweaty iPhone photos/selfies I managed to snap).

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Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Kevin McLean is an ecologist studying wildlife in tropical forest canopies using motion-sensitive cameras (camera traps). As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow he will travel to Malaysian Borneo and the Ecuadorian Amazon to survey canopy wildlife in two of the most biodiverse areas of the world. As he collects his scientific data, he will use writing, photos, and videos to provide a view of some of the least-known species in the forest. His research and stories will be made available to the public through a museum exhibit that will highlight canopy wildlife and the conservation threats they face. Kevin studied Earth Systems at Stanford University and recently completed his PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.