Thursday, 4 July 2013

Taking to the Trees

Staff and students from the School of Biological Sciences at Plymouth University recently completed the Basic Canopy Access Proficiency course.The five-day course at Mount Edgcumbe, led by Canopy Access Ltd, taught us the skills to climb high into the trees. Forest canopies are extremely rich in biodiversity yet understudied and often overlooked. Accessing them is therefore an important skill in forest research, and allows for a wide range of biological and ecological parameters to be sampled, which could not be sampled from the ground.

Unlike rock climbing, tree climbing involves hauling yourself up ropes using a system of mechanical clamps. The attachment to ropes, rather than the tree itself, allows for surprising freedom of movement, enabling you to spin upside down whilst suspended 40 feet above the forest floor (something it is advisable to do from time to time, not just for fun, but to avoid the dangers of suspension trauma caused by blood pooling in your legs if you dangle in your harness for too long)! As well as learning the skills to climb, we also learnt how to rig our ropes in the canopy, using either a slingshot or crossbow to fire lines over safe anchor points in the trees.

With plenty of practice it is possible to move quickly around the tops of trees and between tree canopies. This way of accessing forest canopies can be used all over the world including in the highest rainforest trees, and is enabling vital research into environmental change. It is cheaper, more efficient and less intrusive than building canopy walkways, and allows much closer access than using balloons. 

Having successfully passed the course, Conservation Biology students will be putting their skills to use in their own research projects. Simon Stringer will be travelling to Scotland this summer to study small mammal use of canopy architecture, and Hannah Milburn will be working in Malaysia, carrying out mist-netting in the rainforest to investigate bird and bat populations. Others will be surveying canopy epiphytes and monitoring canopy physiology in response to changes in climate.

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