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Conservation from the Treetops: The Emerging Science of Canopy Ecology

H. Bruce Rinker


The forest canopy, as yet to be fully explored, must be protected because:

  • it’s the home of most of the world’s species
  • it’s where animals find much of their food
  • many human medicines are still to be found there
  • a clean, breathable atmosphere depends on it
  • life on the ground is interconnected with life above

October 2000

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.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., is an ecologist, educator, and explorer committed to establishing sustainable environmental links between people and culture. He is the director of scientific advancement and development at the Biodiversity Research Institute in Gorham, ME. He received his doctorate in environmental studies with an emphasis on forest ecology from Antioch University New England (Keene, NH) in 2004. Dr. Rinker is a National Fellow of The Explorers Club, a Switzer Environmental Fellow, and a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences. He is co-editor of Forest Canopies (Elsevier Press, 2004) and Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis (MIT Press, 2010) and the author of numerous technical and popular articles including a regular “Naturalist’s Column” for the Roanoke Star-Sentinel

Conservation from the Treetops: The Emerging Science of Canopy Ecology

ActionBioscience Article

“Do We Have Enough Forests?”
Read the companion article on the site, by Dr. Sten Nilsson (May 2001) which explores the status of forests worldwide.

BioScience Article

“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.

Ecology quiz

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. 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!

Download/view lesson.
(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 provides a portal to web sites about forests around the world.
  1. 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).
  2. 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).


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