Up in the Clouds

Ecologist Greg Goldsmith makes a plant discovery rooted in Costa Rica's sky-high cloud forests.

Standing in a cloud forest, it’s only natural to feel awe-struck—as if you just want to drink in its otherworldly beauty. In the cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica, you’d be in good company. Here in this mist-shrouded place, it turns out, some plants actually drink the fog.

That’s one of the findings of tropical ecologist Greg Goldsmith, who conducted a study on the effects of climate change on plant ecology here with funding from a National Geographic Young Explorers grant.

Goldsmith observed plants in this tropical montane cloud forest that absorb droplets of water through their leaves—as well as through their roots—in a process called foliar uptake. At least 40 such species exist, and Monteverde is one of the planet’s first ecosystems where scientists have observed trees drinking through their leaves. That’s important particularly during the cloud forest’s three-month-long dry season, when rain is scarce but moisture rolls in from the Caribbean, translating to some 13 hours of fog each day—at least for now. Deforestation and global warming are pushing the clouds to higher ground, causing dangerously dry conditions in the ecosystem.

Goldsmith and his team join countless researchers and scientists, many supported by National Geographic, who have convened at the Monteverde Institute since its 1986 founding to study this unique and endangered ecosystem. Tropical montane cloud forests cover a fraction of a percent of the planet’s land surface, yet in Monteverde, more than 3,000 plant species flourish, including 400-plus orchid species and 750 tree species—about as many as grow across the entire United States. Wild inhabitants include the resplendent quetzal, rare species of glass frogs, and elusive animals such as the Baird’s tapir.

On select Costa Rica trips, National Geographic travelers visit the globally renowned Monteverde Institute for the opportunity to meet researchers or assist in cloud forest conservation.