Book Review: Meg Lowman's "The Arbornaut" Chronicles Her Pioneering Forest Canopy Research

Field biologist Meg Lowman, known as “Canopy Meg,” describes her pioneering research amid the world's forest canopies in "The Arbornaut."


Meg Lowman climbing a tree
Meg Lowman climbing a tree
Photo by Dimossi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
BY SARAH BOON - September 24, 2021
This article was originally published in Undark
Read the original article
When you consider that “upward of half of all terrestrial creatures live about 100 feet or more above our heads,” as biologist Meg Lowman notes in “The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us,” it makes sense for scientists to go to where the action is. But it’s only been in recent decades that researchers have systematically explored the canopies of the world’s tropical and temperate forests, in large part due to the efforts of so-called arbornauts like Lowman.

It’s daunting work, and often dangerous. And while there have been others in the past who have used ropes and climbing gear to conduct scientific research, Lowman in 1979 pioneered a simple method of rigging a tree for climbing using a slingshot. Essentially, from the ground she shoots a weighted fishing line into the upper branches of the tree, then attaches that fishing line to a nylon cord and hauls it over the same pathway. She then ties a heavier climbing rope to the nylon cord and pulls it up and over the support branch.

“The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us” by Meg Lowman (Allen & Unwin, 368 pages)


Lowman and an Australian colleague also did groundbreaking work building canopy walkways. During a field trip with Earthwatch, an organization that matches citizen scientists with researchers around the world, one of the volunteers got her hair caught on the climbing rope. She had to cut her hair without cutting the rope to free herself — a dicey situation, especially for a volunteer. So Lowman and the owner of the lodge at which they were working discussed how they could bring climbers safely into the canopy via an aerial path. This would also be a boon for research, as many researchers could work in the canopy at the same time. The next year, the world’s first canopy walkway was constructed in Lamington National Park in Queensland, Australia. Lowman has also accessed the canopy using construction cranes and an inflatable raft attached to a dirigible.

The book traces her scientific career, from her study of plants and bird eggs as a child in upstate New York, to her undergraduate years studying tree growth and her master’s research studying tree phenology (spring leafing), and finally to her Ph.D. work, where she got into her specialty: the effects of plant-eating insects on the leaves of tropical trees. The field was understudied because most researchers didn’t access the canopy to measure it — and it’s that access that Lowman developed.

She repeatedly notes that there is a research bias when scientific findings are based on studies done just on the forest floor or in the lower parts of trees, excluding the canopy. She likens it to looking just at someone’s big toe to diagnose an illness.

One of Lowman’s recurring themes is the importance of the scientific process, which she expresses as a series of iterative questions; indeed, the longest section of the book describes her Ph.D. research and the additional sub-studies she did to rule out bias in her main study. The reader is bombarded with experiment after experiment that Lowman conducted to answer smaller questions that arose during the course of her research, like whether insects are drawn to eat the water-resistant ink she uses to label leaves; whether they can find their way back to their food source if they fall out of the canopy; and whether young or old leaves are more toxic to the creatures.



This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.





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