In his decades of exploring forest canopies, Dr. Donald Perry developed his unique way to climb to loftier heights. Now, he wants to share his discoveries with others, including people with physical limitations.


According to evolutionary biologist Dr. Donald Perry of Branchport, humans are the best climbers on Earth. To further prove his point, he wants to bring arboreal humans to the Finger Lakes to experience nature as our ancestors did 40,000 years ago, with his invention called the EcoTram.

“Why are humans the best climbers on Earth? Why are we better climbers than apes? We don’t think that we’re better climbers than apes,” Perry said. “You don’t see apes climbing a 1,000-foot face.”

Perry and his wife Roberta, who works as Perry’s editor and as a board member of EcoTram, have lived in the Branchport area for the last 25 years, where Perry has been developing not only a plan to spread ecotourism throughout the United States, but also his theory of canopy evolution, which he plans to outline in his upcoming book “The Descent.”

The book does not yet have a release date, but an article on his theory will be published this May in an encyclopedia covering 21st Century anthropology.

Perry’s theory focuses on the idea that up until 40,000 years ago, humans were not terrestrial creatures. They were climbers. One area that Perry focuses on is brain size.

“The data of brain sizes shows that there is a strong, positive correlation between brain size and climbing,” Perry said. “Species that climb have larger brains generally than species that don’t.”
Perry believes that his theory of canopy evolution will replace the widely accepted theory of evolution outlined by Charles Darwin 150 years ago.

“In the next 100 to 200 years...I believe that I have the theory of evolution‚ it will be known by my name,” Perry said.

Perry has arrived at this conclusion after many years of climbing. He began his career in the 1970s researching rain forest canopies in Costa Rica while he was a student at California State University, Northridge and later on with University of California, Los Angeles.

Perry said that while he was taking a tropical biology class at Northridge, he noticed that very little had been written or researched on rain forest canopies. The methods used then for researching rain forest canopies were pretty invasive, using ladders that were made by hammering into trees.

In 1974, Perry developed a revolutionary method for researching forest canopies. Using a combination of a crossbow and zip-line, Perry was able to reach heights that no other researcher had been able to reach.

In 1984, Perry was chosen as a Laureate of the 1984 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which, according to the awarding organization’s magazine, were created “to provide visionary men and women with the financial support and recognition needed to implement or complete their remarkable projects.”

The Rolex Awards given in 2008 included a grant of $100,000.

Perry was awarded for his next-generation system of canopy exploration that he began developing in 1979, the Automated Web for Canopy Exploration, “a harness and pulley system to create a rope-web that spanned over forest treetops and to the ground,” according to the June 2009 Rolex Awards for Enterprise magazine.

An example of one of Perry’s tree-climbing techniques can be seen on the October 2009 cover of National Geographic magazine, featuring California’s redwood trees. Perry says that he trained the magazine’s photographer on how to use this method to climb trees.

Although he doesn’t search for lost ancient treasures, Perry’s adventurous career almost seems like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

To be more accurate, the movie is “Medicine Man,” based on Perry’s book “Life Above the Jungle Floor.” The 1992 film, however, stars Sean Connery, who also starred in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

Articles about Perry’s work can be found in numerous publications, such as Scientific American and the New York Times magazine, which called Perry “the Jacques Cousteau of the rain-forest.”
In addition to developing zip-line and web systems for scientific research, interest in Perry’s climbing techniques also led him to develop the Rain Forest Aerial Tram, a converted ski tram system that takes tourists through forest canopies. The first tram system opened in 1994, and now has two locations in Costa Rica, in addition to locations in Jamaica, Dominica and St. Lucia.

Perry has since sold the tram to Boston Ventures, but for the last two years, Perry has been developing a new ecotourism prototype that he would like to see used for aerial trails across the United States.

Perry says that with his new commercial prototype EcoTram —currently hanging from the ceiling, anchored to the attic, in a room in his house — and the interests that he has in Costa Rica and Boston, he would like to establish a new tram system that will be more accessible to physically handicapped persons and that will have less of an environmental impact than the previous tram system he worked to develop.

This aerial tram system will have several one-seat trams — some that will allow the attachment of a wheel chair — that will enable tourists to control whether they can stop, move forward or move backward along a forest-suspended line, in addition to radio-control capabilities and an mp3-player guided tour of wherever the tram is located.
Perry says that his ultimate goal is for more people to see nature.

“My main goal is to provide access to the physically challenged,” Perry said, citing the increased number of persons unable to see nature due to war injuries and other physical handicaps.

Although he can demonstrate and begin placing his EcoTram system at several other locations, Perry sees no reason why the first one couldn’t be in the Finger Lakes.

“Why not keep it in our area? I’ve been here for many, many years,” Perry said. “I know there is venture capital interest here. If there’s interest here, I’d be open to that.”
Perry plans to demonstrate his prototype within the next few months before May, either at a test site, or on his own property.

Do you own property that might be a good location for Dr. Perry’s new EcoTram?
Dr. Perry is looking for a scenic gorge, gully or wooded area in the Finger Lakes region where he can install an EcoTram system.
You can contact him at 315-595-2723.
For more about his work and his award, visit http://rolexawards.com/en/about-the-awards/lifeinthecanopy.jsp