Forest ecology has expanded to include canopy research.
Suspension bridge walkway through the canopy at Myakka River State Park, Florida. The bridge, made entirely of wood, is 85 feet long and 25 feet high. Photo: Oksana Hlodan.
Alexander F. Skutch, in his A Naturalist in Costa Rica (1971), encouraged his readers, writing, “To know the forest, we must study it in all aspects, as birds soaring above its roof, as earth-bound bipeds creeping slowly over its roots.” Until recently, our perspective on forest ecology was ground-based and clueless about canopy processes. Only during the past 15 years has our understanding of treetop ecology expanded substantially beyond this bipedal bias — in large part because of the dauntless efforts of a handful of temperate and tropical biologists working from ropes, walkways, airships, cranes, and towers sometimes 120 feet off the forest floor.1 That’s the height of a 12-story building!
Wonders of the forest canopy
Most species — about 30 million — live in the canopy.
Why study the forest canopy ecosystem?
- It is the layer containing most of the productive tissue for the entire forest. Simply put, it is a gigantic food factory elevated on living stilts.
- Consequently, the forest canopy is also where most of the world’s estimated 30 million species live, munching away at all those leafy sugars.
- It is a living aerial laboratory for discovery and opportunity.
- It is an unexplored frontier for scientific research and education.
Conservation from the Treetops: The Emerging Science of Canopy Ecology
“Do We Have Enough Forests?”
Read the companion article on the ActionBioscience.org site, by Dr. Sten Nilsson (May 2001) which explores the status of forests worldwide.
“Ecosystem Thinking in the Northern Forest—and Beyond.”
In this BioScience article (June 2009), Likens and Franklin discuss environmental impacts of forests in the United States and Canada, including acid rain, fragmentation of landscapes, mercury and salt pollution of water resources, invasive alien species and diseases, and climate change. They also propose actions to protect and restore the vital ecosystem functions of the Northern Forest Ecoregion. Read the abstract, or log in to read the full article.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
The site for the canopy ecology program, where Mr. Rinker is director, offers information about canopies and research projects underway. Click on “resources” to find the “What is?” series and learn some quick facts about canopy conservation.
Heroes of the High Frontier
Visit the companion web site to the National Geographic Television film “Heroes of the High Frontier.” Be lead beyond the film and behind the scenes to more information and images about the fascinating world of forest canopies.
Test your ecology IQ.
Read a book
In this new edition of Forest Canopies, 2nd edition, nearly 60 scientists and educators from around the world look at the biodiversity, ecology, evolution, and conservation of forest canopy ecosystems. This book presents data, anecdotes, case studies, observations, and recommendations from researchers and educators who have risked life and limb in their advocacy of the High Frontier. Edited by Margaret D. Lowman and H. Bruce Rinker (Academic Press, 2004).
The International Canopy Network
Get involved with the International Canopy Network (ICAN), an organization devoted to facilitating the continuing interaction of people concerned with forest canopies and forest ecosystems around the world.
Campaign to save wild forests in the U.S.
Learn about The Act to Save America’s Forests and find out how you can take action to protect these national treasures.
Global Forest Watch
Offers interactive maps and data on worldwide deforestation.
Greenpeace Campaign to Protect Forests
Greenpeace offers advice on how you can help prevent deforestation of tropical rainforests.
ActionBioscience.org original lesson
This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany the above article. It includes article content and extension questions, as well as activity handouts for different grade levels.
Lesson Title: Forest Canopies: View from the Top
Levels: high school - undergraduate
Summary: This lesson examines the economic and ecological benefits of forest canopies. Students can draw field sketches of a canopy ecosystem, conduct a feasibility study of constructing a campus or community aerial walkway, prepare tourist information for a canopy research station… and more!
(To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)
Lessons for middle school
The following links will take you to middle school lessons available on other web sites:
Useful links for student research
In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:
- » Your Forest Managed
Manage your forest… with these (and many other) tools provided by the Florida Division of Forestry. Find links to get involved, a forest glossary, forest product statistics, and much more!
- » Easter Island
Brief history of Easter Island (mentioned in Rinker’s article) & numerous related links.
- » The Evergreen Canopy Walkway Project
The Canopy Walkway Project at Evergreen State College, Washington, USA offers useful insights for anyone thinking about such a project in their community.
- » Global Canopy Programme
Part of the Forest Canopy Network, this site offers news, research information, canopy research sites, a message forum, and links to organizations involved in canopy ecology.
- » Forest Conservation Portal
Forests.org provides a portal to web sites about forests around the world.
- For a fascinating historical perspective on the development of canopy science, see Nalini Nadkarni’s 1995 article, “Good-Bye, Tarzan” in The Sciences (vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 28-33).
- Many of these extrapolations are discussed in two of E.O. Wilson’s popular books, Biodiversity (National Academy Press, 1988) and The Diversity of Life (Harvard University Press, 1992).