Meg Lowman is the director of the Nature Research Center at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and a research professor at NC State. She has conquered the canopy of the rainforest, and opened up an entirely new world to scientific discovery. She’s just published a textbook that will help future generations of canopy scientists get their careers off the ground. The Abstract caught up with Lowman and asked her a few questions about what doing rainforest canopy research is like.
1. What are the three “must-have” pieces of equipment for a canopy scientist? Have you had to create some of this equipment for yourself?
“Canopy research isn’t expensive, so it’s a great opportunity for students on a limited budget. The three essential bits of equipment include a harness, rope and a few bits of mountaineering hardware to help you ascend the rope. When I first started out I sewed my first harness using seat belt webbing – there weren’t any outdoor sporting goods stores where I lived in tropical Australia at the time! And for safety, I always use a helmet. Of course, if you’ve got a bigger budget, canopy walkways (rope and wooden suspension bridges) are fabulous!
2. What is the weirdest thing you ever found in the canopy?
“Probably the weirdest thing I ever found in Australia is a multitude of Collembola (which are wingless, soil-dwelling arthropods) and other biodiversity associated with soil – and this was 30 meters high! In this case, we have found that organisms associated with the ground-level actually live in abundance in the canopy but we just never sampled there until the past few years.
“In India, a weird canopy denizen was the leopard, which climbs into the canopy with its prey to feast quietly on breakfast without the competition of the forest floor. It is a little frightening to share the canopy with these top predators!
“Another weird thing for my own research is to find out how much leaf shape, size and chemistry change between understory and canopy – as I tell my students, the leaves differ from top to bottom of trees more than they differ between trees, in many cases – and even weirder is the fact that some of those leaves live over 20 years in tropical forests, much longer than in our temperate canopies.”
3. Not counting falling out of the tree, what is the most dangerous aspect of canopy research? What do you worry about the most when you’re up there?
“Canopy research is fraught with safety hazards – biting ants, swarms of bees and the stinging leaves of some tropical trees. But in all fairness, hanging out in the canopy is much safer than remaining on the forest floor with all the venomous snakes and big cats!”
4. Is this research getting more popular? Are you running into other scientists while you’re in the trees now?
“I hosted the first canopy conference in 1994 to assess what canopy research was going on and who was involved – none of us knew one another! About 200 top scientists attended. In 2009, I co-chaired the fifth international canopy conference with over 500 in attendance, half of which were students. So the field is expanding and it is heart-warming that the next generation is inspired and committed to exploring this ‘eighth continent’ of the planet.”
5. What’s the future of canopy research?
“I hope to see the initial exploratory aspects of canopy research evolve into a primary mechanism for forest conservation. In forest science in general, we are losing forests more quickly than we are classifying species and discovering new information about how forests work. We urgently need to prioritize conservation first and conceptual science second. The good news is that forest canopies act as a “hook” for conservation. With all their important potential medicines and also due to their important spiritual importance for many religions, forest canopies have become an important catalyst for conservation. And perhaps most importantly, their vital role in carbon storage has also given them status in political arenas where countries are developing carbon credits and other policies to offset climate change.”