Prof. Alex Smith in Costa Rica

They are the polar ice caps of the tropics. And like their shrinking northern counterparts, tropical cloud forests in Costa Rica are suffering the effects of global climate change, says Prof. Alex Smith, Integrative Biology.

This month he’s showing that cloud forest to eyeballs around the world in a panoramic photograph selected by GigaPan Systems to mark Earth Day. Smith’s photo was one of seven chosen worldwide for the GigaPan website for Earth Day and appears today as the University of Guelph homepage banner.

Taken in February some 1,300 metres up a volcanic mountain, the image stitches together 1,100 individual pictures snapped by a robot-controlled camera into a panoramic shot covering an entire 360-degree circle. Online viewers can rotate the image and zoom in to catch details like a caterpillar on a leaf.

For the past three years, Smith has used his GigaPan camera to track changes in the Area de Conservacion de Guanacaste. This 163,000-hectare national park in northwestern Costa Rica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More than 325,000 species of plants and animals live there, including species of ants studied by this molecular ecologist and Guelph master’s student Connor Warne.

The mountaintop ecosystem relies on moisture from clouds blown in from the Pacific Ocean and trapped by mosses, ferns and other plants. Since 2008, the Guelph biologists have seen the clouds shrink and move higher up the mountainside each year.

That means biodiversity is changing as plants and animals from lower elevations move upward and squeeze out organisms adapted to cooler, wetter conditions. “Like the cloud forest in a lot of the neotropics, it’s less frequently covered with clouds. It’s drying out,” says Smith, a member of U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. “These are Costa Rica’s polar ice caps, cleaning water, feeding streams, and providing water and life for all of the community.

“This is one of those sentinel locations that we are changing, and we have to understand how it’s changing to protect it.”

Smith visits Costa Rica about three times a year, monitoring sites at three volcanoes. He has used the GigaPan camera in Belize and French Guiana and at home in the U of G dairy bush.

Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says the Guelph biologist is “pioneering new ways in which gigapixel imagery can be used to capture the biodiversity of our planet.”

The GigaPan system was developed by Carnegie Mellon and NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group, with support from Google Inc.