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

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
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.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs