Professor hunts answers in trees of the tropics

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video iconCatherine Cardelús’s passionate interest in tropical biodiversity — one that takes her to rain forest canopies 150 feet above ground — sprouted from a college course in plant biology.

Cardelús, assistant professor of biology, was so intrigued by a professor’s lecture about rain forest diversity that she felt compelled to see it firsthand. So fresh out of Barnard College and uncertain about her career plans, she traveled to the Costa Rican rain forests on a fellowship.

That trip in 1996 solidified her career path. Since then, she has climbed hundreds of trees in search of answers about biodiversity and climate change in the tropics.

In 2008, Cardelús garnered attention for a study she co-authored about the impact of global warming on tropical plants and animals.

The findings, published in Science and reported by news outlets around the world, are significant, said Cardelús, because there has been little attention given to the impact of a warming climate on tropical diversity.

She studied 2,000 plant and animal species along forest slopes of a Costa Rican volcano. According to the study, contrary to conventional wisdom, tropical species living in some of the warmest places on earth may be significantly threatened by global warming.

Catherine Cardelús conducts research in the rain forests of Costa Rica. She is examining the impact of climate change on tropical plants and animals.


Back on the ground at Colgate, she uses her unwavering enthusiasm and “get your hands dirty” approach to inspire students just as she was years earlier.

“If you can get students outside, hands in the dirt, looking at plants … it really brings the lesson home,” she said.

Inside Colgate’s greenhouse at the Ho Science Center, for example, a group of her student-researchers has been monitoring hundreds of tropical plants growing in two different temperature zones.

The students’ data collection and analysis will not only contribute to Cardelús’s global warming research, but also prepare them for future endeavors.

“They are using really sophisticated techniques that gives them an edge for graduate school and for other research experiences.”