The amazing and curious world in the treetops

Photo: thaths on flickr

Is there anything more incredible than the rainforest canopy? Not very likely. The rainforest canopy – the dense area containing the majority of trees branches – is home to some of the greatest biodiversity, or biotic variety, on earth. And where else can you find a complete ecosystem with soil, megafauna, and what is estimated to be half of the world’s plant species – all off the ground?! However, what we know about these incredible “biodiversity hotspots” is very little, as rainforest canopies are among the world’s least understood ecosystems.

So unparalleled is the rainforest canopy in mystery and intrigue that naturalist William Beebe pronounced that, “another continent of life remains to be discovered, not upon the Earth, but one to two hundred feet above it, extending over thousands of square miles.” That was back in the early 1900s, and despite much research being done since then, this quote still holds true.

Among what has been discovered, The EarthWatch Institute details some stand-out research findings including the discovery of the first herbivorous spider; work suggesting that perhaps 6 million insect species exist on earth; and the uncovering of thousands and thousands of species previously unknown to us, many of them endemic – meaning they are found nowhere else in the world – to their respective rainforest canopy.

Where else can you find animals as curious as the pink-eyed katydid newly discovered in Papua New Guinea:

Photo: Naskrecki/iLCP

or the Malagasy Red-bellied Lemur?

photo: BBC

Unfortunately, the well-being of much of the world’s fascinating and mysterious rainforest canopy ecosystems is threatened by human activities. Work by William F. Laurence, published in a 1991 issue of Nature, warned that human activities causing forest fragmentation are compromising the health of these unique ecosystems. A study by Erika Styger and fellow scientists published in a 2007 issue of Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment looked at the large-scale degradation caused by slash-and-burn farming techniques. Additional research keeps pointing at humans as the cause of increasingly unhealthy rainforest canopy ecosystems.

Scientists are currently working to understand the biological and chemical processes at work within the canopy in order to gain a better idea of how we can protect these ecosystems. Some are working to document canopy species composition and interactions while others are expressing concerns over the ability of the rainforest canopy to continue supporting its species in the face of climate change – an area that is beginning to get a lot of research attention. Thus, work is being done to better understand what is happening in the mysterious and marvelous rainforest canopy. Whether we can protect the very-worthy-of-protection rainforest canopy ecosystems before their health is globally compromised remains to be seen.

4 responses to “The amazing and curious world in the treetops

  1. The rain forest has always been a hot topic for environmentalists around the world. The deforestation and its effects on the vast ecosystem that the rain forest is a place for are very detrimental. Human activities over the past few decades have created irreversible damages to the environment and if we do not change our ways now, the Earth that we know now might cease to exist in the near future.

  2. In my ecology course this semester, we had just gone through some of the effects of forest fragmentation and how it is especially harmful to rain forests in particular. The species in the tropical rain forests live in a very stable environments that have not experienced much climate change for many thousands of years. As a result, they have evolved to become highly specialized to their particular habitats and did not develop ways to immigrate to new habitats. Forest fragmentation isolates patches of forest from the main body of the forest and this makes it very difficult for those tropical species to transverse the logging clearing to the fragment of forest. The plants and animals in those fragments cannot receive new breeding individuals from outside. Then if the small populations within the fragments become extinct, they would be be unable to recolonize the area. Essentially, rain forest fragments are coffins in which the species are buried in alive. They are trapped in there while isolated from outside help and only wait to die. Human logging practices are the main cause for forest fragmentation and is a major cause for the extinction of many tropical populations.

    Thank you for bringing up this important ecological topic.

  3. This reminds me of a topic brought up in eosc 270 last year about whale falls. These ‘falls’ create unique ecosystems that form on the bottom of the ocean floor. Both of these ecosystems are so vulnerable to human activities. With the hunting of whales, their populations have decreased greatly, which removes the possibility of them to form habitats on the ocean floor. Your post brings up another great example of how greatly we are affecting the environment without knowing the consequences of our actions.

  4. Papua New Guinea is indeed an amazing place for diversity! Our very own jumping spider specialist and Beaty Biodiversity Museum Director, Dr. Wayne Maddison, had made a survey trip to New Guinea in 2008 and even discovered several new species of spiders. I took a course with Dr. Maddison last year, and on the last day of class he mentioned that had he not brought preserved specimens back from Papua New Guinea, we would never see those species again. This loss of species certainly rings true with the concerns you raised in your blog.