National Geographic : 1997 Jan
Treetop world of rare surprises Avisit to the canopy puts familiar subjects in new perspectives and adds a few surprises. The top of one Douglas fir (above) has the look of a Ferris wheel ornamented with tinsel, in this case lichens, mosses, and liverworts. Such can opy plants, called epiphytes, form communities so dense in places that their mass equals a ton of plant material for every two acres of trees. Prime examples are the big-leaf maples in Olympic National Park, where mosses reach a foot thick and contain more green leafy material than the trees themselves. Nalini Nadkarni (left) of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washing ton, has been climbing big-leaf maples since she was a graduate student in the 1980s. Folding back Tree Giantsof North America the mosses like a luxuriant shag carpet, Nadkarni reveals a soil layer beneath. Treetop soil is cre ated primarily from the decaying remains of leaves and epiphytes and, inthe case of conifers, from needles shed by the tree. Leached by heavy rains, soils in temperate rain forests tend to be so nutrient-poor that even the trees themselves cannot afford to ignore the epiphytes' contribution. Nadkarni's right hand holds a slen der root of the maple itself, which is tapping canopy soil way up in its own crown. Nadkarni's discovery of roots reaching into rain forest canopies around the world has helped turn our understanding of forest ecology on its head. Scientists now pay more and more attention to the role of canopy flora and fauna inthe ecology of forest cycles. An especially rare surprise is finding the nest of a marbled murrelet (above). Several times a day a parent flies as far as 50 miles from the nest to the Pacific Ocean and back to feed its mottled chick. The adult rests and then places afish into the chick's mouth and speeds away. Nervous and easily disturbed by humans, the murrelet, like the old-growth forests itrequires for reproduction, has been in rapid decline. Despite efforts of survey teams up and down the Pacific coast, this was one of the few murrelet nests found inthe region last year. As a consequence, plans for logging near the nesting site have been halted.