News / Science & Technology

Amazon Canopy Hides Secret to its Evolution

A Carnegie Institute tree climber high in the canopy. (Greg Asner)
A Carnegie Institute tree climber high in the canopy. (Greg Asner)
Rosanne Skirble
Hidden in the canopy of the tropical rainforest is the secret to its evolution. The tale embedded in the chemistry of each leaf relates to how the tree adapts to pests, pathogens, and changes in environment and climate. A new study in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences finds that understanding the traits found in these interlocking branches and leaves at the top of the trees can help better manage and protect these forests, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.

  • The Carnegie Institution Spectranomics project debut study collected and analyzed foliage from 3,560 canopies across 19 forests in Peru, including this lowland area. (Greg Asner)
  • The tropical mountain forests are a complex patchwork of different chemicals that evolved over time to help them adapt to geological conditions, land use and pests. (Greg Asner)
  • Clear waters run through the unpolluted Andean forest. (Greg Asner)
  • Ecologist Greg Asner leads the Carnegie Institution Spectranomics project to map canopy function and biological diversity throughout tropical forests of the world. (Robin Martin)
  • A Carnegie Institution botanist in the Peruvian rainforest begins his 45-meter climb to collect foliage from the tree canopy. (Jake Bryant)
  • Tree climbers in the Amazon use rope ladders, bridges and towers to get to the canopy and move from canopy to canopy once they are up there. (Greg Asner)
  • A Carnegie Institution tree climber high in the canopy. (Greg Asner)
  • The view of the Amazon forest looking down from the tree top. (Greg Asner)
  • A Carnegie Institution scientist analyzes cytogenetically preserved tropical tree foliage for various chemical traits that can predict how it will survive. (Greg Asner)
  • Spectranomics project research finds that trees have a different matrix of growth and survival strategies. (Greg Asner)
  • A sample from the canopy of a Peruvian rainforest in the Spectranomics library at Carnegie Department of Global Ecology, which Greg Asner heads at the campus of Stanford University. (Robin Martin)

Climbers scale 3,560 trees

Lead author and Carnegie Institution ecologist Greg Asner based his findings on an expedition to gather foliage from the top of 3,560 trees across 19 forests in the western Amazon.  He says when you look down on the region from an aircraft, it resembles a green carpet “and is pretty monotonous…Our question was, is it really that monotonous?  Is it all the same? Or is it really variable in terms of how it functions and how it has been put together evolutionarily?”  

To find the answer, Asner deployed climbers up the 45-meter trees to the canopy, the central nervous system of the forest that regulates water flow, stores carbon and provides habitat. “The Western Amazon is now understood to be... if not the, then one of the highest biodiversity regions on the planet.  More species per acre exist there than nearly anywhere else.  And also it’s an area that’s rapidly changing with land development and with climate change.”

Different traits in neighboring trees

In his canopy analysis, Asner describes the forest as a rich mosaic that varies with elevation and soil content. “What we found is that the species that are found on these different [areas] have radically different chemistries as communities of trees. So a community on this [area], if you can walk just a few miles away to a new [area], it’s a different chemical makeup in the next canopy.”  

What came as a complete surprise was that neighboring trees in the same community had distinct chemical signatures, says Asner. “Every time you climb a tree you’re basically getting a completely different chemical portfolio from the last tree that you climbed. In other words, there is an enormous diversification of chemical traits among the different trees that are living together. We thought that the variation would be slower across the Amazon basin, but what we see is that almost every tree has evolved its own chemical traits unique from one another."

Tree chemistry can help protect forests

Asner explains that how those trees evolved traits to combat pests and pathogens and or to survive environmental change can help predict how the species will respond to future threats, such as land use, drought or climate change.  He hopes better forest management can emerge based on the findings. “And what do we have to do to do that?  What kinds of protected areas do we set up? What kinds of management treatments do we make sure are in place in terms of human use of the forest and so forth? A lot of that can be predicted by understanding the chemistry of trees.”   

Asner's study is the scientific debut for the Spectranomics Project, a field and laboratory-based effort to study tropical forests. The project plans to release a series of reports on biological hot spots including forests in Madagascar, Ecuador and Australia.

You May Like

Video British Fighters on Frontline of Islamic State Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Pakistan's Political Turmoil Again Shines Spotlight on Military

Thousands of protesters calling for PM Sharif to step down continue protests in front of parliament, as critics fear political impasse could spur another military coup More

Photogallery Ebola Quarantines Spark Anxiety in Liberian Capital

Food prices rise sharply as residents attempting purchases clash with security forces, leaving one person dead More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: joyeall01 from: Chicago, IL
March 09, 2014 6:32 AM
It's a miracle how to plant and trees are surviving, and it can help predict how the species will respond to future threats, such as land use, drought or climate change.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid