Nature’s Secrets

Mobility-limited students explore tree-tops

August 4, 2013 

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discove r.

Mark Twain

It is often assumed that wheelchair dependency hinders a career in field biology. But scientists at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences are proving otherwise.

With funds from the National Science Foundation, mobility-limited college students are tackling unanswered questions about what lives in the tops of temperate forest trees – research that is preparing them for careers as forest ecologists or field entomologists. To access the treetops, students do not need to amble along a walking trail. They can sit in a harness and propel themselves upward with hardware used by mountaineers and cavers that has been adapted for tree climbing.

Once airborne, the student arbornauts (technical term for “treetop explorers”) are sampling tardigrades, commonly called water bears or moss piglets. Although these microscopic animals were the first experimental creatures to survive in outer space, back on Earth they are little known, little studied and easy to find. On “Animal Planet,” they have earned the distinction as the world’s most extremophile critter! Water bears can survive the vacuums of outer space, pressure six times greater than the deepest ocean trenches, temperatures higher than boiling water or just above absolute zero. They can go without food or water for more than 100 years.

In their current museum research projects, undergraduates are asking questions about water bears: Do more live in the top versus the bottom of a tree? Is there one species or 100 species? Do they prefer leaf surfaces, lichen, moss or bark habitat? Or are they living on more savory surfaces, such as the spinach and lettuce in your garden?

One student, Rebecca, lost the use of her legs after a car accident in childhood. Asked about her first canopy climb as part of this summer research experience, she said, “Learning to climb has been such an empowering and rewarding experience. It has shown me that I am far more capable than I ever gave myself credit for, and has only reinforced my endless awe and deep appreciation of nature.”

Want to learn more about water bears? Come to the Daily Planet technology theater at the museum in Raleigh to hear students answer their canopy questions this Thursday at 1-2 p.m. and 5-6 p.m.

Interested in climbing a tree to survey water bears or other species invisible from the forest floor? Our expert research team of arbornauts will host a canopy workshop on Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. at the museum’s Eco-station, Prairie Ridge, just outside of Raleigh. (Directions: http://naturalsciences.org/prairie-ridge-ecostation.)

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University: www.naturalsciences.org.

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