Deep in the Amazon rainforest, 37 miles north of Manaus, Brazil, stands a giant metal tower. Stretching 151 feet high, it rises through the rainforest canopy. Its spire reaches even higher above the treetops.
The tower, called ZF-2, was built in the 1980s to study climate. But recently, a team of entomologists climbed to its top to study something different: bugs!
From beetles to crickets to leaf-cutter ants, the insects lurking on the ground of the Amazon rainforest have been studied before. But an international team led by José Albertino Rafael, an entomologist from Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research, wanted to know which insects live in the canopy. The team spent two weeks in 2017 collecting, counting, and sorting all the bugs they could catch. They found ants, bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, beetles, and flies—so many flies.
The insects were so abundant at all elevations on the tower that the team started thinking of the rainforest as not just a horizontal ecosystem but a vertical one. Tropical rainforests are already known to be ecosystems with high biodiversity, or variety of life. More than 30 percent of the world’s estimated species of animals, plants, and insects live there! But not even the world’s foremost bug experts could have anticipated just how many insects call the rainforest’s canopy home.
“I’ve seen insect samples from a lot of places in the Amazon. This was really something special,” says Brian Brown, an entomologist—and fly expert—at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who was a part of the team.