Monday, December 5, 2011

Biologist explores $25M renovated Rainforest

November 30, 2011
Source: Daily News

GALVESTON — Rain forests are hot and wet. The sun beats down for 12 hours a day, and rainfall averages at least 160 inches each year. Not exactly the climate you’d expect to find on the Texas coast.

But you won’t have to travel to the Amazon to explore this unique forest. Inside a glass pyramid at Moody Gardens, the perfect mix of light, warmth and moisture supports an assemblage of 1,000 plants and animals moved from rain forests around the world.

The Rainforest Pyramid has been a fixture at Moody Gardens for years, but the recent $25 million renovation following Hurricane Ike has remade it into a jewel.

The renovated exhibit takes visitors to a whole new level, literally. Upon entering, visitors climb stairs and pass through glass doors to a warm, humid tropical paradise surrounded by tree and palm leaves. The elevated 300-foot walkway, called the Tree Top Trail, offers a birds-eye view of the rain forest.

A canopy of six enormous ficus trees, some reaching halfway up the 10-story pyramid, envelops the walkway. Cascades of 30-foot fibrous roots dangle from the limbs, while an arsenal of aerial roots arise from their trunks, penetrating soil and grabbing rock.

These trees are some of the few survivors of Hurricane Ike’s saltwater surge that flooded the rain forest floor in 2008. Unlike many of the other tropical plants and animals that perished in a salty brew, these ficus trees survived and now provide much of the green canvas for the new exhibit.

From the walkway, you can spot white-faced Saki monkeys, cotton-top tamarins and two-toed sloths — those hairy tree lovers who spend a lot of time hanging upside down from limbs.

There are exotic birds and butterflies, deadly snakes, poison dart frogs and big-eyed fruit bats that enjoy munching on fruits and nectar from flowers.

Then there are rain forest residents most likely to be heard before seen. The colorful — and loud — macaws stand guard on perches above the freshwater fish exhibit.

But some of the world’s most dreaded animal species also call the rain forest home. The green anaconda is the world’s heaviest snake, weighing as much as 550 pounds. It delights in squeezing its prey to death.

Tiny in comparison, but just as fearsome, are the red-bellied piranhas. With powerful jaws and razor-sharp teeth, they can clean flesh from bone within seconds.

There’s an emperor scorpion, a large black-colored beauty with a venom-filled tail barb. And vampire bats hang upside down, digesting their diet of fresh animal blood.

Amid the animal activity are hundreds of tropical plants — colorful pink orchids, bromeliads, carnivorous pitcher plants, palms, bamboo, spider plants, African violets, bird of paradise and plants that are sources of products we consume every day, like coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and bananas.

One exhibit, however, left me wondering. At the leaf cutter ants display, the sign says these little creatures cut leaves into pieces they use to cultivate fungi, the principal part of their diet.

But the exhibit was empty. Had they escaped into their own little heaven, a world of leaves?

This recreated rain forest delivers a simple conservation message — Rainforests support a vast array of plants, many useful to man, and animals found nowhere else. But even so, these unique ecosystems are in danger, being lost at an alarming rate to deforestation.

Near the exit, the take-home message reads: “We need to save this precious living laboratory for ourselves and for future generations.”

Steve Alexander, a retired marine scientist, is a Texas Master Naturalist and president of Friends of Galveston Island State Park.
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