Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture: Arbornaut's Adventures

 Tonight, my great and good friends of the Secret Science Club are presenting a Zoom lecture by biologist, ecologist, forest canopy study pioneer, and explorer Dr Meg Lowman of the TREE Foundation and a professor at the National University of Singapore, Arizona State University, and Universiti Sains Malaysia. Her latest book is The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us.

Dr Lowman began the lecture by noting that trees don't talk, and pondered how her career would have been different if she had decided to study primates or dolphins.  She decided that, like the Lorax, she would speak for the trees. Over the last century, we have lost half of our primary forests and we will be in big trouble if we lose our trees.  Much of her career has been dedicated to perfecting methods to study tree canopies.

Dr Lowman began her studies as a child in upstate New York- she was a great collector of specimens such as flowers, birds nests, and the like.  While in the fifth grade, she won second place in the NY State science fare, with a presentation about wildflowers.  She was inspired by environmentalist Rachel Carson and by Harriet Tubman, whose ability to navigate in forests was well-honed.  She grew up in an area characterized by deciduous trees, and was astounded at the age of 23 by the tropical forests in which the trees keep their leaves year-round.  She joked that her grandfather put his botanical expertise to use as a distiller of moonshine during Prohibition.

Dr Lowman was a pioneer in developing equipment that allowed her to study forest canopies- she sewed her first harness from seatbelt material, made a welded metal slingshot, and employed hot air balloons.  50% of land-based plants and animals live in our treetops, only 10% has been discovered to date.  She was one of the first researchers to study whole trees without cutting them down, causing birds to flee and insects to be crushed.  In 1979, she sewed her harness, made her slingshot, and borrowed ropes from the university caving club to study subtropical tree canopies in Australia.

In 1985, she created the first canopy walk for an ecotourism site in Queensland, allowing many eyeballs to be trained on the canopy at once.  Facing sexism in the Australian outback, she returned to the US.  In 1992, she employed construction cranes in research and created a canopy walkway at WIlliams College.  In 1994, she started using inflatables such as blimps and balloons.  In 2000, she made the first public canopy walkway in the US, in Sarasota, Florida.  She then created the TREE Foundation to facilitate funding for canopy studies.

Trees are worth untold millions to countries that sustainably utilize them.  Trees filter water, provide oxygen timber food clothing, are instrumental in soil conservation, are home to 50% of terrestial species, are the greatest carbon storage on Earth, are the greatest climate control mechanism on earth.  We need to keep our forests intact, they even work while we sleep.

Dr Lowman showed a picture of a canopy walk in Penang, Indonesia, in an area threatened by oil palm plantations.  By putting in the canopy walk, she turned the area into a tourist destination.  Kids love trees, she has had programs to involve girls and disadvantaged groups.  She has had third graders discover a new weevil species, and had a group of wheelchair-using students discover tardigrade species in Kansas.

Ethiopia has lost all but 4% of its forests.  One of the remaining forests surrounds a Coptic church, the priests of which have joined in her pro-forest crusade.  She has shared knowledge and trust with the Orthodox hierarchy to have them educate their congregations to build conservation walls, made from stones removed from farmers' fields, to protect forests from farm animals.  She wrote a book, Beza, which is provided in Amharic on a one-for-one basis with English book sales.

The acccelerating rate of deforestation represents an existential threat to humanity.  Forests are genetic libraries, sustaining diversity.  Wildfires devastated Australia, North America, Siberia, as did the continual burn of the Amazon.

Dr Lowman, inspired by Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue, founded Mission Green to protect ten crucial forests.  It is a project to foster biodiversity, employ indigenous people as ecotourism workers, educate local populations to provide scientsts.  Logging is a 'one way street' economically, seedlings take hundreds of years to become big trees.  Sustainable industry is preferable for trees and people.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session.  How do animals adapt to canopy walkways?  Mammals interact with walkways.  Canopy walks are less intrusive than trails on the ground which damage the soil.  They are a safe way to allow people to study forests.  Some bastard in the audience asked about the dangers posed by invasive species, such as the eucalyptus trees in California... eucalyptus trees are fire adapted, planting them in California was like putting oily rags in an attic, creating fire hazards.  In Florida, invasive species such as Burmese pythons are changing the Everglades ecosystem.  We are looking at a problematic world, and the culling of invasives will be a huge political issue.  Having big primary forests of large, native trees is the best defense.  

Asked about studying forests on all continents, where does Antarctica have a canopy?  Dr Lowman joked that even a two foot canopy on a stony, icy land is worthy of study, and she has found tardigrades in this canopy.   A tenth grader asked about getting involved in studying the Amazon, and Dr Lowman cited organizations that could help her with scholarship money, and provided her contact information.  Dr Lowman also told her to get involved in bio-blitzes and other activities.

Asked about the Japanese practice of daisugi, Dr Lowman noted that she didn't know much about the technique, but that wealthy countries had access to practices that poor countries do not.

Can city trees make up somewhat for lost forests?  Urban trees are important: they may be the only trees city kids see, they provide shade and habitats for animals and other plants.  Sadly, most urban trees only survive nine years or so, being subject to cutting due to road projects and the like.  We need to respect our elders, and cherish older, larger city trees.

How did the kids discover a new weevil species?  They took pictures of bromeliads with holes in them and this provided evidence of the weevil.  Kids have great eyes.  How do we address invasives such as porcelain vine?  Invasives have no pests in their new homes.  Governments have budget constraints, so the problem is largely 'under the table', even as landscapes change.  The laternfly poses a huge problem in the Northeastern US.  We need diverse forests to help individual species.

Why do sloths poop on the ground?  One of Dr Lowman's students studied this phenomenon- there is a complex food web involving a moth that lives in the sloth's fur and algae that grows on the fur.

Asked about the boreal forests, some of the last large forests, Dr Lowman noted that the Russian taiga is not well known.  One danger in the northern realms is the melting of the permafrost, which releases methane.  Even here in North America, redwood trees, our most iconic trees, are not well known.  We know more about Mars than we know about Earth's forests.

Why did Dr Lowman use a slingshot?  She couldn't train a monkey to climb up with a rope, and she had to make her own slingshot to fling a fishing line over high branches to pull up a nylon twine which she used to pull up her climbing rope.

What advice would she give to forest services?  Protect big old trees and diverse forests.  They produce the most biodiversity and the most oxygen.  Cherish them like you cherish your elders.

Another question involved tree communication- tree leaves give off chemical signals when they are munched on.  They also interact through microrrhiza.

Deforestation plays a role in pandemics- organisms such as bats, which don't normally interact with humans, are exposed to humans and pathogens transfer.  When we hurt our forests, we hurt ourselves.

What are the most common insects encountered in forests?  Beetles.  Regarding other organisms, tardigrades are also extremely common as well, though they cannot be seen.

Tree plantings in cities and suburbs are good projects, with stress on native plants being a good idea.

Regarding a plan to use GMO trees to revive the American chestnut would not bring back the functionally extinct tree in its original form, but it would provide lovely trees.  We can't bring the passenger pigeon back, but we might create something which fills the same niche.

Why save big trees?  They are most efficient at providing habitats, and oxygen.

Why aren't more scientists studying canopies?  Dr Lowman describes this as 'hit you over the head science', most ecologists stuck to the ground... a doctor wouldn't examine a patient's nose to determine an eye or ear problem.  The big issue is funding, there is little big money for ecological research, especially the small-scale studies of a young student climbing a tree.  There is no big global mission to keep trees alive, the money just isn't there.  Dorian joked about harnessing pop culture to help out.

Asked about her feelings about being in the canopy, Dr Lowman described the concerns involved in climbing, and the elation of emerging from a dark forest floor into a bright, noisy canopy.  She exhorted all of us to find a canopy walk.

Once again, the Secret Science Club has served up a fantastic lecture.  Kudos to Dr Lowman, Dorian, and Margaret.  This was an entertaining, informative lecture served with a side of advocacy and a hint of adventure narrative.  It hit that 'Secret Science Sweet Spot; that I often mention.

Here's a video of Dr Lowman lecturing on this subject:

Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

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