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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.



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

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. Anna Thorpe
    Framingham, MA
    September 12, 2011, 7:07 pm

    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.

  4. The Wrights
    September 11, 2011, 1:12 pm

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

  5. carol patterson
    Costa Rica
    September 7, 2011, 12:22 pm

    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…

  6. Roslynn Rubin Ed.D
    Waltham, MA
    September 7, 2011, 9:36 am

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

  7. David Ghosh
    September 7, 2011, 5:55 am

    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.

  8. Jacob Lovell
    September 6, 2011, 8:23 pm

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