From urban jungle to rainforest canopy – how construction cranes are building ecological knowledge

December 13, 2016, British Ecological Society

The humble construction crane could be the key to exploring what ecologists call 'the last biotic frontier' – the forest canopy.

Despite being the lungs of planet Earth, hots spots for biodiversity and the interface between nature and the atmosphere, forest canopies are the ecosystem we know least about because of their inaccessibility.

Speaking at the British Ecological Society's annual meeting in Liverpool this week, Dr Louise Ashton of the Natural History Museum will explain how a growing network of canopy cranes is helping discover new species and answer crucial questions about .

Over the past 30 years, most canopy research has relied on climbing ropes into the tree tops. Although this makes for an exciting branch of ecology, it makes it impossible to conduct large-scale studies across different types of forest in different regions.

As a result, huge gaps exist in our understanding of forest canopies: we do not know how carbon, water and energy are exchanged between the forest and the atmosphere, and many of the insects that inhabit have yet to be described by science.

The canopy crane network currently comprises 15 cranes in forests across Europe, Asia, South America and Australia. Eight more are being built in China, and only Africa and North America now lack canopy cranes.

Instead of moving steel girders and concrete blocks around urban construction sites, canopy cranes enable ecologists to carry out detailed experiments in the tree tops. The crane's moveable arm lets them reach up to 2 hectares of forest.

Dr Ashton is part of an international team of ecologists from China, Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan and the UK working to raise the profile of canopy science.

"Forests provide essential ecosystem services. However, they are under increasing human pressure from logging, fire and climate change and we know too little about them to understand the likely impact of these threats," she says.

"The international network of canopy cranes – as well as increasingly cheap and accessible technologies such as drones, remote sensing and metagenomics – will be crucial to answering urgent questions about the ecology and dynamics of forest canopies."

Metagenomics is the genetic sequencing of DNA extracted directly from communities in environmental samples. This large scale genomics the different microorganisms present in a specific environment, such as water or soil, to be analysed.

Explore further: Forest canopies buffer against climate change

Related Stories

Forest canopies buffer against climate change

April 29, 2015

When temperatures rise and less water falls, forests respond. Forest canopies can buffer juvenile trees from drought and heat by providing shade for the younger trees below the leaf and needle cover. Adult trees have deep ...

Drones help monitor health of giant sequoias

December 8, 2016

Todd Dawson's field equipment always includes ropes and ascenders, which he and his team use to climb hundreds of feet into the canopies of the world's largest trees, California's redwoods.

Ant bridges connect shy tropical tree crowns

November 16, 2016

Internet and phone connections are essential for effective communicators and for success in business. New results from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama show that connections between trees may be ...

Recommended for you

How a pair of satellites will 'weigh' water on Earth

May 22, 2018

The reason we know today just how much ice is melting in Greenland and Antarctica is because of a pair of satellites, launched in 2002 by NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ). Now, they are set to be ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.