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Jorge Deleg collecting canopy lichens in Yasuni National Park
Canopy Research in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador 2019

In March 2019 myself and fellow tree climbing instructor Jez Davies joined a research team in Yasuni National Park to deliver a tree climbing course .  Over 4 weeks we worked along side scientists teaching them the skills necessary to access and install the equipment required for their data collection.  Everything from the research centre staff, food, wildlife encounters, trees and people was brilliant.  Anyone who has done any form of forest research will know that this situation is unusual!  

Yasuni National Park is one of, if not the most biodiverse areas in the world.  By remaining active and unfrozen during the last ice-age the area has evolved into a beautifully complex natural environment that is home to thousands of species of plants and animals. It is also home to the indigenous communities of Waorani, Kichiwa and at least two un-contacted tribes within its boundaries, Taromenane and Tagaeri.  Originally hunter gatherer people, the Waorani now reside within and along the boundaries of Yasuni National Park fighting to protect the forest from the continued pressures of oil extraction, land-use and climate change.

Traditional Waorani Art

Despite the importance of this area and its people these pressures are increasing. The science and research carried out here is not only crucial to the understanding of forest ecosystems but offers a means to provide information that can add value to the area, increasing justification for its protection.

A short film on the Waorani and the pressures they face

The Research Involved

“It could be the eternal project of mankind to learn what forests have figured out” Richard Powers, Overstory.

In addition to rainfall, the term rainforest has been categorised using latitude, altitude and local environmental conditions such as temperature. We even have a classified rainforest in Scotland, primarily due to rainfall!  In the tropical regions there are several forest types including: Tropical Lowland Rainforest (TLRF) which is the hot, humid, sweaty version with large insects, huge towering trees and troops of monkeys swinging around liana’s, think Jungle Book. Then there is Tropical Montane Cloud Forest (TMCL) which are forests immersed in dense rolling fog, huge abundance of plants, mosses, epiphytes and trees with ‘Ent-like forms, think Lord of the Rings. 

Quite recently a new forest category was described after researchers (Gehrig-Downie et al. 2011) discovered high abundance of epiphytes, bryophytes and fog occurrence in areas previously described as TLRF.  These findings led to a new classification of forest called Tropical Lowland Cloud Forest (TLCF). 

Despite the advances in both climbing and research technology there are still very few sources of data collected from rainforest canopies around the world leading to a knowledge gap with regards to answering specific meteorological and biological questions – canopy scientists, harnesses at the ready!*

*Canopy Scientists please note that this is not dismissive of your hard work and efforts but that I only aim to highlight the importance of it here!

So, what is a Tropical Lowland Cloud Forest and why is it important for scientists to make these distinctions?

Monica Bibiana immersed in the forest.

The Research Team

Dr Monica Bibiana of University of Marburg, Germany led the small team of scientists on a four month fieldwork project to determine whether remote sensing from pervious studies had correctly predicted an area of rainforest in the Yasuni National Park, Ecuadorian Amazon as TLCF. This forest type is determined by the presence and certain high levels of fog and high biodiversity of epiphytes, notably bryophytes and mosses.  If the results confirm what the remote sensing model predicted then it can be further used on a global scale to predict patterns in epiphyte carbon balance.

To investigate the accuracy of the remote sensing model the team is required to collect all the data manually and this means climbing trees! Fabulous. With not only samples to be taken from the tree crowns the team is required to install data logging equipment that is not only fragile but also awkward and heavy! Challenge accepted.

Tree Climbing

It’s not possible to deliver tree climbing training at fieldwork sites of every project, the higher financial costs in getting the equipment and instructors out to site is often too great to consider.  However the benefits of learning how to climb the very trees that will be used for sampling is one huge advantage to reducing the time spent acclimatising to a new environment AND trying to get to grips with a new set of skills. 

In addition it allows the newly trained climber to practise these new skills in the presence of the instructors that can open up new learning opportunities when navigating the daily occurrence of setbacks in canopy science!  But, please don’t mistake this as a way of saying climbing professionals know everything, the jungle is hands down the best place to remind anyone that experts don’t exist in these environments! Accept temporary defeat, laugh it off (perhaps not immediately) and try again with new found information!  I’m still trying to master this.  

For us as instructors, the time spent with canopy researchers in the field is incredibly valuable to learning how individuals respond to certain techniques and equipment. It also allows us to test different sampling methods at height and to investigate the the mind bending world of science whilst dangling out of trees.  

Jorge Deleg installing equipment in the canopy.
Follow up

We are already looking forward to finding out what the research says but more importantly grateful to the new friends and experiences which form the foundation of the work we do.

To visit an area like this is a trip of a life time, to work with scientists climbing trees in this area is no less than a life changing experience.  Thank you to all the staff at Yasuni Research Centre, Monica Bibiana, Karen Suarez, Jorge Deleg, Louise Guerot, Nada Nikolik, David Lasso of PUCE University, Quito and Jez Davies for his unfaltering moral (and coffee). 

For more information on Yasuni National Park, its unique environment and the fight to protect the forest by the Waorani please see below.

For those who would like to connect with Dr Mónica Bibiana about her research please see her linkedin profile below