Observation is at the heart of any science. Meg Crofoot simply wants to see a little smarter. As a behavioral ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, Crofoot directs one of science’s most unique tools, ARTS (Automated Radio Telemetry System). Basically, ARTS tracks anything that’s tagged with a radio transmitter. And on Barro Colorado in Panama, the 1,500-hectare island laboratory where Crofoot lives, a lot of things wear radio tags.
Crofoot spends eight hours a day dodging hissing bullet ants, spiny plants, and poisonous fer-de-lance snakes to collar capuchin monkeys. Other researchers brave similar obstacles to tag ocelots, ratlike agoutis, anteaters, and three-toed sloths, among other creatures. ARTS then tracks the movements of these animals every four minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The result is unexpected. Instead of simply charting the disparate parts of an ecosystem, scientists can “see” the system itself, how it acts and reacts, how its members interact, and what drives them to do what they do. Says Crofoot, “It’s a one-of-a-kind system on the planet.” Check it out at princeton.edu.