F&M biology professor Sybil Gotsch receives research grant for work in Costa Rica

By Bridget Johnston || News Editor

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Photo courtesy of sybilgotsch.com

Since 2013, Sybil Gotsch, professor of Biology at Franklin & Marshall, has spent her summers acting as a lead investigator in her field of research in Costa Rica’s Tropical Montane Cloud Forests. Her work has recently earned her a grant from the National Science Foundation for a multi-institutional collaborative research project.

Gotsch explains that cloud forests occur when a cloud layer moves across a mountain, causing the cloud to condense when it hits the mountain. When this occurs, the clouds close up, causing it to rain. The forests under the mountain then soak up the rain, acting as a sponge, which then keeps the streams and groundwater healthy.

These cloud forests are currently threatened both by climate change and shifts in land use. Many similar environments have been cut down and replaced by grass fields or other types of farm land that are largely incapable of absorbing enough of the sun’s heat. The excess heat then causes the clouds to rise, thus removing the cloud forest. This shift brings about extinctions in both the plant and animal communities. Gotsch and her team worked with epiphytes, or small plants that take root on the branches of larger plants. She argues that epiphytes operate “like canaries in a coal mine” and signal any drastic shifts coming about in the particular ecosystem. This is largely because epiphytes do not have roots going into the ground. Instead they take root in old moss on other trees. Therefore, they are more sensitive to shifts in climate.

After studying biology in college, Gotsch became interested in how trees withstood stress, seeing as they cannot move. She feels that the logical next step from that question is to look towards the affects of climate change.

She finds that her research also satisfies her own need to be out and about, getting dirty and climbing trees. She says, “It get’s me climbing trees for a living. I can satisfy my intellectual needs and my adventurous needs.” In order to conduct her research on the epiphytes, her team builds rigs in order to observe and take measurements of the epiphyte community dozens of feet in the air.

Currently, she works with two biology professors when she travels abroad along with a few select students that she chooses each summer. Some of the student researchers from current and past years include Jessica Murray ’15, Lex Darby ’15, Andrew Glunk ’15, Ken Davidson ’16, Ignacio Picado Fallas ’17, Vanessa Duarte ’16, Erica Hample ’17, Mackenzie Dix ’15, and Minh Pham ’15. Further information about her team can be found on her personal website. At the end of the summer, most of the researchers on the site are able to then work on their own publication, due to how fresh and new the work in this field is.This past May, Gotsch received a research grant for a total of $564,000. This money is currently going towards paying for field assistants at the site in Costa Rica, allowing the research to continue in some way even though Gotsch herself is not physically present to oversee the work. They are also putting the money towards building research greenhouses as well as other long-term projects.

Gotsch hopes that her work will eventually help to raise awareness about the challenges facing the cloud forest ecosystem. As she put it, “You can’t do anything with information unless people know it’s there.” In terms of more tangible results, she hopes for increased conservation strategies and for additional plans to “help speed up the regrowth of the community so the ecosystem can be brought back.”

Junior Bridget Johnston is the News Editor. Her email is bjohnsto@fandm. edu.

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