Nature's Secrets

Tree climbing puts scientists at new frontier


Yet another continent remains to be discovered, not upon the earth, but one to two hundred feet above it. There awaits a rich harvest for the naturalist who overcomes the obstacles - gravity, ants, thorns, rotten trunks - and mounts into the summits of the jungle trees.

William Beebe, G. Inness Hartley and Paul G. Howes, "Tropical Wild Life in British Guiana," 1917

Did you know that over 70 species of ants live in Raleigh?

A survey of urban insects, recently conducted by the Museum of Natural Sciences and the biology department at N.C. State University, represents the first effort that engaged citizens to count the wealth of unknown critters who share our cities. The results of this citizen science effort will likely double or triple when the treetop habitats are included. One of the least explored regions of the planet, forest canopies are home to millions of species (predominantly insects), and North Carolina's treetops are relatively unexplored to date.

To expand our knowledge of the diversity of life in North Carolina (and beyond), the new Nature Research Center recently hosted its first Canopy Training Course. Whereas astronauts explore outer space, arbornauts study the treetops, a region of the planet almost as unknown as Mars even though it exists only 100 feet above our heads.

Twenty people - including K-12 teachers, faculty and students from around the state - participated in the three-day workshop. Donning helmets and harnesses, this intrepid class mastered the art of rigging ropes, tying knots and overcoming a fear of heights.

Tate Little, a fifth-grade teacher from Carrboro Elementary School, hopes to use the excitement of tree-climbing to inspire his students, especially minorities, about science. Appalachian State student Laura Boggess needs climbing skills for her research on cliff faces in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The history of forest research was limited to sampling at ground level, leaving the bulk of tall trees, including their fruits, flowers and foliage, out of sight and unstudied. Not surprisingly, this led to many misconceptions about forest health. With the advent of technical climbing hardware, canopy science was formally launched in the early 1980s. To overcome gravity, canopy scientists use a variety of creative tools: ropes and climbing hardware, scaffolds, ladders, hot-air balloons, treetop walkways and even construction cranes that are transported in segments to tropical forests.

As a result of treetop exploration, scientists now estimate that over half of the world's terrestrial biodiversity lives in forest canopies. This extraordinary discovery was made within the past 30 years by a handful of biologists suspended on ropes! As global deforestation accelerates, it becomes a race against time for scientists to document the extraordinary diversity of species, interactions and ultimate health of forest canopies.

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online:

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