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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms 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.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
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.
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.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid