Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

16 Jul 2016

Canopy Science and the climb above the glass ceiling

Sure footed scientists working 50 m above the forest floor

Tropical fieldwork requires brawn as well as brain. Slogging through forest, dealing with troublesome insects and oppressive heat can prove challenging, and the hard working conditions can often lead to ego-pumping bravado spouting from the mouths of its practitioners. More often than not, the typical field biologist is western university-educated, middle-class, white, and male (I am no exception). Although this in itself does not impact on the quality of science produced, it does reflect the prevailing norms which favour my sorts in academic research at the expense of equally or more talented women. The recent remarks of Tim Hunt revealed the views which many of the influential old guard generation of scientists are likely to share (although following the ensuing twitter storm, are unlikely to admit).

During recruitment, a woman must convince her employer she won’t fall pregnant as soon as she is hired, that raising her children will not detract from her research, and returning to tropical fieldwork, that they are physically and mentally strong enough to deal with the conditions. A man in the same position is almost never asked such questions but could be equally challenged by family life and fieldwork. Although attitudes have come a long way, and progress for equality continues, women continue to face discrimination within the sciences.

As proof to how false such presumptions are, one need only explore the literature surrounding my field of research to reveal the academic achievements of women against the odds. Accessing the canopy, the uppermost branches of our forests, has been described as our planet's final frontier for explorers and scientists alike.  Reliance on catapults, crossbows and cartridges to fire ropes into the trees, and then muscle, sweat and sheer determination to reach such heights is no mean feat. But it is the repetitive nature of sampling, often over many years, and the later untangling of data accumulated which can ultimately prove the greatest challenge.  

Such women are an inspiration, either to the young children they teach through education outreach, to their undergraduate students at universities, or to their fellow scientists out in the field. Their example demonstrates why science and academia MUST promote equality, and facilitate the careers of future female frontier breakers if it is to benefit from the talents of 50% of  the world's population. Here are just a few of the women who dominate this field and inspire me on a daily basis:

Dr. Lowman amongst the branches. Picture Wiki Commons.
Dr. Meg Lowman pioneered new access techniques to explore the tropical forests of northern Australia, and later went on to spread the story of canopy science to subsequent generations. In refusing to back down to what 1970s society expected of her, she has gone on to be a leading name in canopy exploration and science communication.

Dr. Nadkarni delivers her TED Talk on Canopy Science.

Nalini Nadkarni shocked her academic colleagues and department, not by suggesting that canopies could hold the secrets to the staggering levels of diversity in tropical forests, but by doggedly collecting years of data from the forests of Monte Verde in Costa Rica and later Barro Colorado Island in Panama. Watch her TED talk above to hear about her work.

Dr. Kalsum Yusah. Photo:
Dr. Kalsum Yusah strove to explore the upper limits of her native Bornean forests. During her PhD at the University of Cambridge, she regularly climbed 16 trees across the Danum Valley Conservation Area to examine the how insect communities were able to live together in such challenging conditions, facing ant stings and heat exhaustion. Find out more about her work here.

Dr. Nakabayashi attaches a radio-collar to an anesthetized Small-toothed palm civet
Dr. Myabi Nakabayashi, a post-doctoral student at Kyoto University is unafraid of challenges, having spent much of the past 5 years working across Borneo to study nocturnal and arboreal mammals. Rather than selecting “easy” routes of insect and plant studies, she is spending hours tracing the movements of arboreal civets and the elusive binturong, in an attempt to reveal their importance for the dispersal and regeneration of the next generation of forests.

Borneo Correspondence: Counting Carbon in the Canopy

Six months on, and I am back at Danum Valley Field Centre to continue collecting data for my PhD thesis. And aside from the continuation of my research project, a twist of fate ties this visit to the last. On one of my final days here back in January, with my work coming to a close, and a sense of entitled accomplishment, I allowed myself to lounge around and read the magazines left by passing tourists and researchers. One of these was a National Geographic where a photo editorial focused on the use of remote sensing, or the collection of data using electronic sensors to reveal trends in the world's geographic organisation. Along with images of satellite trajectories and shifting river beds, were images of tree crowns from above, their colours distorted so as to appear in vivid technicolor, a Wonka-Oz-Dr.Seus-esque scene of pink and purple.

Canopy of rainforest in Panama with colour indicating carbon uptake (green slow, pink fast). Photo by Gregory Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science

These images were the work of Greg Asner and his colleagues at the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, who use LIDAR (Light Imaging, Detection and Ranging) technology to scan huge areas of the globe's surface, collecting terrifying amounts of data on its composition. By flying a dual propeller plane shooting lasers down at whatever lies below, and recording the returning light signal, the team are able to detect changes in the chemical make-up of huge areas of the planet’s surface in a short amount of time.  Soaking in the images before me, pictorial representations making seemingly complicated data incredibly easy to interpret, I became inspired by how advanced techniques had made the collection of information of global significance rapid and efficient. I also felt pity for those who have had to spend years of repetitive fieldwork to gather a smidgen of what was being shown here, collected in a single flyby.

And so back to this week, on the ground in Danum, where I started my acclimatization by assisting others working here, getting used to the heat and sweat, to the mosquito bites and wasp stings. Along with botanists working on trees and vines, we trekked to plots of forest to record the size and density of marked trees and lianas or vines. By repeating measures over subsequent years, scientists can determine how a forest is evolving, either as a result of its recovery from logging, or due to changes in global climate. For there it is, a ghoulish presence hanging over everyone’s shoulder, a force which we would prefer to ignore, but whose ramifications will likely impact on all of life on earth: human induced climate change as a result of carbon emissions.

Botanist Julien Engel measures trunk diameter in French Guiana
In recording tree growth, it becomes possible to determine how a forest stores released carbon. Lianas and epiphytes too, long neglected by scientists trying to see the woods through the trees, are now taken into account as influencing not only forest recovery (their choking embrace smothering trees and preventing their growth), but also in storing large amounts of carbon themselves. Thankfully, international governments are beginning acknowledge the threats of climate change. Carbon is now on the global agenda, and with programmes such as the UN’s REDD+ promoting carbon credit schemes and payment to countries for maintaining forest cover, trees equate to top dollar. Carbon creditors, aiming to cash in on this emerging market are placing large investments into projects which aim to strengthen calculations of where carbon is stored and how much of it is there. And when you require funds to fly a laser-firing plane across the globe, working for such investors can prove highly tempting. And so, on my return to Danum, I bump into Greg Asner himself, here with his colleagues to collect leaf samples to enable a better calibration for future forest scans.

The CAO plane flying over the Sierra Navada, California. Photo by Gregory Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science
The team take two approaches; firstly, using LIDAR, they can calculate the height of the canopy from the ground, and its density, and thus an estimation as to how much carbon is held by each tree. This approach, as Greg says, pays the bills, and satisfies partner organisations interested in carbon balances. But is also allows for flight plans to collect more data, using the second approach of spectroscopy, or the analysis of different wavelengths of light returning to the plane’s detectors. Different species of trees have different chemical signals as a result of the physiological make up of their leaves, which absorb and reflect varying levels of light. By collecting leaves from trees which have been scanned, and identifying the species, you can have an effective chemical fingerprint, in theory allowing future flybys to determine not only carbon content, but also species diversity.

Dana Chadwick from CAO preparing leaf specimens
The combination of traditional field techniques such as specimen collection and identification, with more technologically advanced tools such as LIDAR is making waves in how science is performed, and how data is interpreted. Burgeoned by an increasing global conscience and demand for this information, landmark projects such as the Carnigie Airbourne Observatory are able to accomplish tasks which would previously have been unthinkable, but which today are increasingly common. Tropical biologists are now often armed with drones and a GPS, in addition to measuring tools of tradition. With a serendipitous week of inspiration from fellow jungle researchers, I am ready to commence my next 3 months of fieldwork!

7 Jun 2016

Going Underground

Digging for answers
I have something to confess. In spite of myself, I have been buried under the efforts of my thesis and have emerged as something of a soil geek.  Here I was, 7 years along my career path as an entomologist when of all places, it is at the top of a tree that I find myself falling head over heels down a rabbit hole into the wonderland of underground ecosystems. For it is in beginning to study the interactions amongst insects and their environment that I have become titillated by discussions of tillage and leaching, moved by talk of porosity and mycorrhiza. 

These were words which previously meant little to me. But like the first glimpse of a coral reef underwater, or turning over a rock to reveal the inner working of an ant’s nest, studying the soil beneath our feet is like entering a new world. Heading underground, the rules learned to understand our ecosystems can be left at the door. Like an Escher drawing, a hall of mirrors or an image within an image within an image, the closer that you look, the more that detail is revealed and the more lost you can become. For the microbial world is surreal and intimidating for the uninitiated, where a single gram of soil can contain millions of individuals and several thousand species of bacteria, where a drop of water can spark a rush of activity to such an extent that a soil of today is unrecognisable tomorrow.

The complexity of these ecosystems means that in spite of the complete dependence of the human race on soils for our survival, we still know frighteningly little about their functioning. Soils have been treated as something of a black box, or a magician’s hat, where certain things enter and others emerge, with little understanding as to what occurs within. With 2015 declared the UN’s International Year of Soil, and with global efforts to consolidate scientific knowledge such as the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas (free copy here), it is becoming increasingly feasible to navigate what previously felt like an underground labyrinth. But even with tentative advances in our understanding of soil processes, agricultural industries, wholly dependent on the quality of their soil, can appear woefully uninformed when enacting management decisions.

And so it rests with the scientific community to make headway in their research on the subterranean world, but also to share their findings and instigate change in land management policy. What we put into the soil can impact what comes out, as shown by this research, which demonstrated that cattle manure from cows given antibiotics resulted in a soil which emitted 80% more methane (an important greenhouse gas) than from non- antibiotic treated cows, and also influenced the survival and reproduction of dung beetles. Invertebrates such as these which live within the soil are an important component for the decomposition of organic matter, with this study highlighting the importance of a high number of species and individuals for effective organic matter breakdown. Another study showed how ants in particular (those guys!) determine how much decomposition the whole soil community can provide in certain habitats. But whilst invertebrates could be seen as undertakers in a funerary processing chain, for the release of dead material and its return to the living, it is the microbial community who act as necromancers. Below the surface, the fungi and bacteria envelope and entwine rotting matter so that it dissolves down into a nutritious soup of future plant feed.

It is in this underworld domain of the microbes which I currently find myself, attempting to understand the complex processes which affect the soil community, and allow it to function the way it does. In the sciences, a burst of new perspectives and ideas can be incredibly stimulating and liberating. I had gone from studying ants, to their place within their larger ecosystem, to trying to understand the way these invertebrates influence the processes which help to maintain natural ecosystems. By figuratively burying my head in the soil, I have emerged enlightened as to how vital soils are for our planet, how complicated yet fascinating a topsy-turvy world it is, and how it is the unseen elements of this ecosystem which hold sway over our planet's resurrection.