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  • We had been looking at the bottoms of trees, as foresters, for over a century,

  • and nobody ever knew the top was so different from the bottom.

  • Located hundreds of feet above the ground in the canopies of forests is a unique ecosystem

  • that is home to a potential cure for some of the world's deadliest diseases,

  • microscopic tardigrades, and temporarily, this group of daredevil researchers.

  • With the advent of ropes and a few slingshots that I invented along the way, we went to

  • the mid-canopy and we went to the upper canopy, which were really new exploration opportunities.

  • Dr. Meg Lowman pioneered forest exploration when all there was to use

  • were cranes, hot air balloons, and walkways.

  • Now, that toolkit is expanding, which is essential to help combat threats

  • such as deforestation and drought.

  • Suddenly we have drones, and we also have LiDAR, and some of the other aerial technologies

  • that are giving us incredible, broad brush strokes of things like canopy drought, distribution

  • of canopy vines, or certain species of trees that we're trying to track

  • that make it really tough to do, tree after tree, from the ground.

  • One of the areas of Meg's expertise involves the close relationship

  • between insects and plants in the rainforest.

  • I have to learn a lot about both. I do focus on the tree as a system,

  • and the tree as a support for so many other types of life in the rainforest.

  • But I do focus a lot on insects, because they tend to be the dominant herbivore,

  • and there are millions of insects up there, and they are beautiful and gorgeous.

  • The levels of light and rain hitting the top of these forests cause canopies to be hotspots

  • for biodiversity, accounting for likely fifty percent of all land-based life on Earth.

  • - Of that fifty percent life on Earth, probably only ten percent has been seen or discovered

  • by that handful of us that explore the canopy.

  • How many species are in the rainforest?

  • Maybe there are 5 million.

  • But it truly is a guessing game, because maybe we've missed a whole group.

  • And I think water bears is a good example.

  • That's a whole phylum that nobody really explored until about the last three or four years

  • when I partnered with a water bear taxonomist.

  • We can't even count those creatures when we're up there, because we can't see them

  • with our naked eye.

  • These water bears, or tardigrades, are tiny: roughly half a millimeter.

  • These creatures are most likely carried to these towering trees by wind.

  • If these extremophiles do not find their environment to be satisfactory, they can enter a stage

  • known as cryptobiosis, curling up into a ball to survive extreme conditions for extended

  • periods of time without food or water, and coming back to life when conditions have improved.

  • New species of tardigrades continue to be discovered and analyzed,

  • given that their cellular construction could reveal clues to radiation protection,

  • and their genetics could lead to answers surrounding resiliency.

  • This is just one of the areas that Meg comes across in her work with trees and insects

  • that underscores how important this resource can be for humans.

  • In a few cases, pharmaceutical companies have made that magical link

  • between plants and medicines.

  • And so it's given me a really wonderful ability to work with the local shaman and the villagers

  • in a lot of countries where the medicinal value of the trees is so important.

  • The leaves that aren't eaten by insects tend to be the ones that have sequestered

  • chemical compounds that can in turn be turned into medicines.

  • We now realize we can use the insect damage to figure out which trees

  • might have more medicinal values.

  • Meg's research has even more urgency, especially if the rate of deforestation

  • continues at the current pace.

  • Using satellite analysis, NASA predicts that in just 40 years, about a billion hectares

  • of rainforest land, about the size of Europe, will have disappeared.

  • In 100 years, rainforests will be gone altogether.

  • Forests are essential to our life.

  • We have so many easy ways of connecting ourselves to trees.

  • I mentioned medicines, fruits, home to biodiversity.

  • Soil conservation.

  • Carbon storage is a huge one.

  • It's hard to sell people on the fact that they should keep millions of creatures alive

  • when they probably can't understand their importance value.

  • I think a good analogy is that in an airplane there are a lot of redundant screws,

  • and maybe you don't need every single one to fly the plane, but at some point,

  • if they keep dropping off of the machine, it's not going to work anymore.

  • We know that each species has a role in this ecosystem, and we need to keep that system healthy.

  • How many can we lose?

  • Probably some, but not all.

  • And where is that tipping point?

  • We're not really sure.

  • So the more that we can protect those species, the better off we are.

  • For more episodes of Science in the Extremes, check out this one right here.

  • Don't forget to subscribe and come back to Seeker for more episodes.

  • Thanks for watching!

We had been looking at the bottoms of trees, as foresters, for over a century,

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B1 US canopy rainforest meg tree life deforestation

What Tardigrades Can Teach Us About Life in the Rainforest

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    joey joey posted on 2021/04/16
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