Spiral staircase leading up to a canopy observatory in Peru. Click image for more information. (Photo by R. Butler)
By Rhett Butler
| Last updated July 30, 2012
Little was known about this rich layer until relatively recently when scientists discovered efficient ways to study the canopy. However, even with modern techniques of study, many species, systems, and relationships of the canopy are still mysterious and much is still left to be discovered.
Early attempts to study the canopy ranged from the ingenious to the bizarre. These included the felling of whole trees, shooting down branches with shotguns, hiring natives to climb trees, and firing ropes up into the trees for climbing. One scientist in Borneo even trained a monkey to climb into trees to bring down samples of epiphytes. The bits and pieces of collected canopy were examined and scientists tried to piece the canopy puzzle together. This process was extremely difficult—assembling a car without instructions, given just a toolbox, random sheet metal, and some nuts and bolts would probably be an easier endeavor.
In the 1970s scientists began to use mountaineering techniques and ropes to access the canopy and platforms for long-term surveillance. This method was far more successful than any previous, but the area of observation was limited to a small area. In addition, the rope climbing was often dangerous, expensive, and had limited potential for eco-tourism.
Today, elaborate methods of canopy exploration have been devised, of which some are clearly more practical and successful than others. In 1990 a balloon-raft was placed on top of the canopy in locations in West Africa and French Guiana. The scientists could access the canopy from above and observe as they sat on the raft. However, this method was expensive and possibly damaging to the forest. Another technique, utilizing a construction crane, is employed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama
(also see the Global Canopy Programme). Canopy walkways are gaining popularity in several rainforests both as a research tool and as a way to attract tourists. Other ways to explore the canopy include using ultra-lite planes, dirigible balloons, ski-lift-style trams, and remote-controlled pulley systems. Often these projects pay for themselves in the number of tourists that come to experience the walkway, but there is always a danger of over-use.
ACCER Canopy Walkway, Peru 1995
Even with modern techniques of study, much of the biological machinery of the canopy, especially pollination and the relationships between different organisms, still remains unknown. Hence future forest study will most likely continue to be concentrated in the canopy.
An interview with canopy expert Dr. Meg Lowman: Canopy research is key to understanding rainforests: Home to perhaps half the world's terrestrial species, rainforests are the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. However, when one strolls through the forest, this biodiversity is rarely apparent for the simple reason that most activity in the rainforest occurs in the canopy, a layer of overlapping branches and leaves some 60-120 feet off the ground. Here, a wealth of ecological niches creates opportunities for plants and animals, including species generally considered to be ground-dwellers: crabs, kangaroos, and even earthworms.
Crane's Eye View: Studying the rainforest canopy: A groundbreaking new project dedicated to studying rainforest canopies is about to enter the implementation stage in five tropical forests across the globe. The Global Canopy Program, headed by Dr. Andrew Mitchell of Oxford University, consists of the placement of giant cranes in Brazil, Ghana, India, Madagascar and Malaysia. The cranes, outfitted with observation platforms and laboratories, will swing exploratory arms freely out over the top of the canopy with enough clearance to avoid disturbing the environment or its inhabitants.
Builder of rainforest canopy walkways believes conservation can be profitable: This month's issue of The Ecological Finance Review details Greenheart conservation Company, a for-profit company that designs, builds and operates conservation based canopy walkways (canopy trails) and other nature-based attractions around the world. Operating on the premise that conservation can be economically viable, Greenheart believes that is has already become a "model of how to shift gears from an industrial to a green economy." Greenheart has developed or is developing canopy walkways in Peru, Nigeria, Madagascar, Ghana, Brazil, Guyana, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
+ Rainforest canopy pictures
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More canopy walkway pictures from Malaysia and Colombia. Also see pictures from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's canopy crane in Panama
- Why is it important to study the rainforest canopy?
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The faster, fiercer, and always surprising sloth, an interview with Bryson Voirin
(10/25/2009) Sloths sleep all day; they are always slow; and they are gentle animals. These are just some of the popular misconceptions that sloth-scientist and expert tree-climber, Bryson Voirin, is overturning. After growing up among the wild creatures of Florida, spending his high school years in Germany, and earning a Bachelors degree in biology and environment at the New College of Florida, Voirin found his calling. At the New College of Florida, Voirin "met Meg Lowman, the famous canopy pioneer who invented many of the tree climbing techniques everyone uses today."
Markets could save rainforests: an interview with Andrew Mitchell
(08/17/2008) Markets may soon value rainforests as living entities rather than for just the commodities produced when they are cut down, said a tropical forest researcher speaking in June at a conservation biology conference in the South American country of Suriname. Andrew Mitchell, founder and director of the London-based Global Canopy Program (GCP), said he is encouraged by signs that investors are beginning to look at the value of services afforded by healthy forests.
Canopy research is key to understanding rainforests
(11/28/2006) Home to perhaps half the world's terrestrial species, rainforests are the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. However, when one strolls through the forest, this biodiversity is rarely apparent for the simple reason that most activity in the rainforest occurs in the canopy, a layer of overlapping branches and leaves some 60-120 feet off the ground. Here, a wealth of ecological niches creates opportunities for plants and animals, including species generally considered to be ground-dwellers: crabs, kangaroos, and even earthworms. Beyond housing biodiversity, the canopy is the power source of the rainforest, with billions of tree leaves acting as miniature solar panels to convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis. Since the rate of photosynthesis of canopy trees is so high, these plants generate higher yields of fruits, seeds, flowers, and leaves which attract and support a wide diversity of animal life. Further, as the principal site of the interchange of heat, water vapor, and atmospheric gases, the canopy also plays an important role in regulating regional and global climate.
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