Walk through a forest, and you might see ferns, berry bushes, and the occasional salamander. But in redwood forests, these organisms make their home hundreds of feet above the forest floor. Welcome to Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries, a glimpse of the world of science from the inside.
Steve Sillett is a redwood ecologist who conducts research in trees which tower 30 stories high and can measure 21 feet wide. And the topmost canopy has played host to a variety of plants and animals for thousands of years. But oddly enough, the creatures we most associate with living in trees are not found here.
“The leaves of redwood are not really palatable to most insects. Maybe because they have chemical toxins in them. So as a consequence there’s not a lot of stuff up here eating the leaves, which means there’s not a lot of food for things like birds. So there’s very few birds up here”
ambience: gigapan robot
Birds aside, redwoods are home to a remarkable range of organisms. The sound you hear is a robot Sillett hauled to the top of a redwood. It takes a series of photographs that when stitched together create a panoramic image called a gigapan; on the way up, he encountered flying squirrel nests, a wandering salamander, and epiphytes: plants that grow on other plants, while drawing their nutrients from the air and rain.
“Including one that I never noticed in the tree before, having surveyed this tree for many days, there is still something to be discovered. I found a sword fern growing on an old gnarly limb that I’d never noticed. This tree has several epiphytic hemlock trees and a bunch of shrubbery. There’s some good evergreen huckleberry, including up hear over 300-foot above the ground on this rotten spire. In the wintertime, the huckleberries turn red, so this thing’s like a beacon. And from one of the gigapans, actually, you can see this red spot, and if you zoom in you can tell it’s a huckleberry way the heck up here on this spire.”
And it’s hard to resist treetop huckleberries at snack time.
Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries are made possible by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.