Scientist aims to connect the public with nature's 'last biotic frontier'

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    Nalini Nadkarni: Science evangelist

Nalini Nadkarni: Science evangelist 03:00

Editor’s Note: Nalini Nadkarni is a professor, a pioneer in tree canopy research and co-founder of the Sustainability in Prisons Project. Watch a 30-minute profile of her on CNN's "The Next List," Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

By Nalini Nadkarni, Special to CNN

“Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening sky.”

--- Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet

Hanging by a rope no thicker than my pinkie finger in a giant spruce tree 150 feet above the ground, I survey the view of the temperate rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula below me. Although perching in this treetop may seem more like a dream for a combination rock-climber and wilderness adventurer, the forest canopy has been my arena for a lifetime of scientific research.

    The forest canopy - the part of the forest high above the forest floor - has been an area of burgeoning scientific interest for the last three decades. I was among the first forest canopy pioneers who thought that climbing vertically to explore the treetops would yield scientific paydirt. The thrill of the climb drew us to develop methods of canopy access -- modified mountain-climbing techniques, construction cranes, hot-air balloons.

    Those early experiences were exploratory forays into an unknown scientific world, termed “the last biotic frontier." We observed new interactions. Arboreal mice pollinate flowers in the nocturnal canopy. Roots grow from the branches of trees to draw nutrients from canopy-held soils. Canopy-dwelling mosses sieve nutrients from rain that passes through canopies. Once, when I spent the night in a Costa Rican forest canopy, a nocturnal anteater walked right by my suspended cot, searching out columns of arboreal leaf-cutting ants. The ants carried leaf bits they had harvested to their subterranean nests, connecting treetops to root tips.

    By the late 1990s, the canopy research world had swelled to hundreds of scientists whose work populated prestigious scientific journals. We reported that the organisms who live in forest canopies participate in critical processes that keep forests going: pollination, fruit dispersal, nutrient cycling and sequestration of carbon.

    Recently, scientists’ interests in the canopy have focused on how human activities affect forest canopies. Forest fragmentation has led to a severe and irreplaceable loss of canopy biodiversity. Harvesting of “secondary forest products,” such as moss, for the floriculture trade leaves literal holes in the fabric of intact forest canopies, which can take decades or even centuries to replace. Many forest canopy plants and animals also are vulnerable to the effects of global climate change.

    As a canopy scientist and a science communicator, what is on my “Next List” for our planet? I will continue to probe the unknown scientific questions that the treetops provide because I love learning about this still-mysterious world through the lens of science.

    But a larger part of my Next List is the combination of projects that I hope will engage the public with not only knowledge about the scientific values of the forest, but also its emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and human values. With the increasing distance between humans and nature, it is not enough to provide forest facts to audiences who are already knowledgeable about forests. I must create and offer points of connection, respect and understanding with people who do not regularly pick up a National Geographic magazine or hike in their local wild lands. These days, finding links between trees and people who value professional sports, religion, hunting, art, rap and poetry is my professional frontier.

    I continue to climb trees because they are terrific ambassadors to nature - due to their tall stature, quiet strength and eloquent silence. But there are other nature ambassadors: our vast oceans, dynamic rivers and tiny-but-remarkable leaf-cutter ants. We need scientists and non-scientists who can communicate the importance of these representatives of nature to others, and thereby become a part of the Next List of nature’s ambassadors.