The Rainforest Canopy
CANOPY STUDYJuly 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.
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.
Canopy crusade: world's highest network of camera traps keeps an eye on animals impacted by gas project
An interview with canopy expert Dr. Meg Lowman: Canopy research is key to understanding rainforests
Crane's Eye View: Studying the rainforest canopy
Builder of rainforest canopy walkways believes conservation can be profitable
More canopy walkway pictures and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's canopy crane in Panama
- Why is it important to study the rainforest canopy?
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Continued: Rainforest Overstory