The Rainforest Canopy


July 30, 2012

Little was known about this rich layer until relatively recently when scientists discovered efficient ways to study the canopy. However, even with modern techniques of study, many species, systems, and relationships of the canopy are still mysterious and much is still left to be discovered.

Early attempts to study the canopy ranged from the ingenious to the bizarre. These included the felling of whole trees, shooting down branches with shotguns, hiring natives to climb trees, and firing ropes up into the trees for climbing. One scientist in Borneo even trained a monkey to climb into trees to bring down samples of epiphytes. The bits and pieces of collected canopy were examined and scientists tried to piece the canopy puzzle together. This process was extremely difficult—assembling a car without instructions, given just a toolbox, random sheet metal, and some nuts and bolts would probably be an easier endeavor.

Manu canopy walkway. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

In the 1970s scientists began to use mountaineering techniques and ropes to access the canopy and platforms for long-term surveillance. This method was far more successful than any previous, but the area of observation was limited to a small area. In addition, the rope climbing was often dangerous, expensive, and had limited potential for eco-tourism.

Today, elaborate methods of canopy exploration have been devised, of which some are clearly more practical and successful than others. In 1990 a balloon-raft was placed on top of the canopy in locations in West Africa and French Guiana. The scientists could access the canopy from above and observe as they sat on the raft. However, this method was expensive and possibly damaging to the forest. Another technique, utilizing a construction crane, is employed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama (also see the Global Canopy Programme). Canopy walkways are gaining popularity in several rainforests both as a research tool and as a way to attract tourists. Other ways to explore the canopy include using ultra-lite planes, dirigible balloons, ski-lift-style trams, and remote-controlled pulley systems. Often these projects pay for themselves in the number of tourists that come to experience the walkway, but there is always a danger of over-use.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute uses a construction crane to conduct tropical forest research in Panama. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Even with modern techniques of study, much of the biological machinery of the canopy, especially pollination and the relationships between different organisms, still remains unknown. Hence future forest study will most likely continue to be concentrated in the canopy.


    Canopy crusade: world's highest network of camera traps keeps an eye on animals impacted by gas project

    Oil, gas, timber, gold: the Amazon rainforest is rich in resources, and their exploitation is booming. As resource extraction increases, so does the development of access roads and pipelines. These carve their way through previously intact forest, thereby interrupting the myriad pathways of the species that live there. For species that depend on the rainforest canopy, this can be particularly problematic.

    An interview with canopy expert Dr. Meg Lowman: Canopy research is key to understanding rainforests

    Home to perhaps half the world's terrestrial species, rainforests are the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. However, when one strolls through the forest, this biodiversity is rarely apparent for the simple reason that most activity in the rainforest occurs in the canopy, a layer of overlapping branches and leaves some 60-120 feet off the ground. Here, a wealth of ecological niches creates opportunities for plants and animals, including species generally considered to be ground-dwellers: crabs, kangaroos, and even earthworms.

    Crane's Eye View: Studying the rainforest canopy

    A groundbreaking new project dedicated to studying rainforest canopies is about to enter the implementation stage in five tropical forests across the globe. The Global Canopy Program, headed by Dr. Andrew Mitchell of Oxford University, consists of the placement of giant cranes in Brazil, Ghana, India, Madagascar and Malaysia. The cranes, outfitted with observation platforms and laboratories, will swing exploratory arms freely out over the top of the canopy with enough clearance to avoid disturbing the environment or its inhabitants.

    Builder of rainforest canopy walkways believes conservation can be profitable

    This month's issue of The Ecological Finance Review details Greenheart conservation Company, a for-profit company that designs, builds and operates conservation based canopy walkways (canopy trails) and other nature-based attractions around the world. Operating on the premise that conservation can be economically viable, Greenheart believes that is has already become a "model of how to shift gears from an industrial to a green economy." Greenheart has developed or is developing canopy walkways in Peru, Nigeria, Madagascar, Ghana, Brazil, Guyana, the United Kingdom, and Canada.


More canopy walkway pictures and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's canopy crane in Panama

Canopy platform in Amacayacu National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • Why is it important to study the rainforest canopy?

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Continued: Rainforest Overstory