From his fluorescent-lit office on the frozen, snow-covered University of Montana campus, Cory Cleveland spends much of his time thinking about tropical rainforests and how much they mean to everyone on the planet.
“Rainforests are essentially the lungs of the planet,” he explained. “More oxygen is produced in tropical rain forests than any other land ecosystem on Earth. Rainforests are really critical players in terms of climate and atmosphere systems. It’s really fascinating.”
A professor of ecosystem ecology at UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, Cleveland has spent 20 years traveling to remote rainforest field stations in places like Bolivia, Costa Rica, Brazil and Hawaii. He studies things that most people can’t see, such as the microbial world and nutrient cycling.
“I would argue microbes are the engines driving many of the major processes on the planet,” he said. “If people understood it a little bit more, they would maybe take more of an interest. It's not as exciting to people as something like a wolf or a bear but that doesn't mean it's not important. Soil is one of the things that makes people's eyes glaze over when you start talking about it. But I make it my challenge to get people excited about soil."
Recently, Cleveland and lead author Fiona Soper published a study that found tiny leafcutter ants in Panama and elsewhere play a big role in nitrous oxide emissions in rainforests. That’s because leafcutter ants bury parts of leaves underground to farm a fungus that grows on the plant material. After consuming the fungus, the ants deposit the decaying leaves in big piles, which emit the gas at very high rates (although in amounts that are inconsequential to global warming).
"Ants cut leaves from trees, take them underground and farm fungus that grows on the decomposing leaves, their primary food source," Cleveland said. "In doing that, they generate waste that must be disposed of. They do this like we do, meticulously moving their trash to something not unlike our landfills."
In those ant landfills, micro-organisms break down their trash, generating gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
"Just like (human waste facilities) do," Cleveland said. "The parallels to our society are really striking in this story."
Cleveland said the study got widespread attention and was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, but it would have never happened if Soper hadn’t noticed a leafcutter ant colony had gotten in the way of another study she was trying to do. On a whim, she decided to measure the gases coming off the pile and was surprised by the results.
“There’s an accidental science part of this,” he said. “Sometimes, the most interesting stuff, you kind of stumble across. The interesting stuff tends to be there even when you’re not looking at it. When you think about the complexity of the rainforest, there’s interesting things happening all over the place.”
For many researchers around the world, traveling to the jungles where stinging and biting insects proliferate is a costly and time-consuming exercise. That’s why these critical ecosystems haven’t gotten as much attention as they deserve.
“These rainforests are relatively understudied,” Cleveland explained. “Most of the large universities in the world are in the northern latitudes or southern latitudes. There are relatively few in the tropics. It’s not a system you can just drive to, so people get discouraged. It takes a massive campaign and lots of things are trying to bite you, but it’s super-rewarding.”
Cleveland, 48, got his doctorate from the University of Colorado in Boulder and began his career at UM in 2007.
He believes scientists and journalists need to collaborate more, so he’s worked with the UM School of Journalism on the Story Lab project to bring journalists on field trips. Butte-based journalist Maddie Vincent worked with Cleveland for a year while she earned her master’s degree in environmental journalism.
“Cory offered a lot of guidance and support through my master’s, including helping me better understand how to communicate science effectively,” she said. “He advocated for me and supported me like I was one of his students, even though I was in a totally different major.”
These days, Cleveland is more involved in fundraising to help the next generation of scientists get to the tropical regions for studies.
"I’ve learned a lot," he said. "And I hope we’ve contributed a lot to understanding what happens in tropical rainforests. Rainforest research is critical. Everything from finding medicine to species diversity to the carbon cycle, it’s been an honor to be funded to work in them for 20 years."