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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Life at 150 Feet

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks to biologist and photographer Mark Moffett about his work documenting previously unknown species in the tropical rainforest canopy. Moffett's experiences and photographs are contained in his new book, The High Frontier.


CURWOOD: The search for genetic diversity isn't always fraught with ethical pitfalls. In fact, when you're stretching to get a close-up shot of an unknown species of worm or frog or flower, while hanging in a tree 150 feet off the ground, you're more likely to worry about more literal types of falls. But if you want to reach one of the last and greatest frontiers of ecology, the canopies of the tropical rainforests are the place to be. Thousands of plants and animals live there, never descending to the forest floor. There may be no better chronicler of these species, and the daredevil researchers who study them, than Mark Moffett, a Harvard biologist and a photographer for the National Geographic, whose new book, The High Frontier, includes some frankly amazing photographs. Moffett is also an expert climber. But he says moving up through the trees can still be unsettling.

MOFFETT: It's certainly a weird experience. It's not like climbing a rock face on a mountain. You've got every layer moving independently, as the various currents move the foliage back and forth. And there's this sense of instability: nothing is steady. And there's also all the layering. It's very hard to tell how high you are.

CURWOOD: The canopy is just teeming with life. Why is that?

MOFFETT: Certainly, just the complexity of the environment, just the labyrinth that this vegetation forms, and the opportunities for different critters to find hiding places, both in the leaves and in the bark and in the trunks of trees, and among the plants up there. A tree can contain several hundred species of plants growing on its crown, and each of those types of plants can have various other plants and animals associated with it, so you have a world within a world phenomenon. And there's just all sorts of opportunities for very complex life cycles and species relationships.

CURWOOD: Can you tell us about an adventure or a misadventure you've had in the canopy?

MOFFETT: Well, I've had face-to-face close calls with things like bears. I was in Colombia photographing spectacle bears, which are the world's only real canopy bear. And I was photographing a mother and her cub, and climbed up in the trees to get a good picture of the mother. And I wasn't watching, but the cub looped around and climbed up my tree; I only noticed this when the branch began to make this horrible creaking sound and I started to bend. Didn't know what to do because it's an endangered species, and I couldn't kick it. And so I sort of wiggled my foot in its direction, and that caused the mother to let out a terrible roar. And fortunately the cub was more terrified by mom than I was, and scrambled down the tree very quickly and they both jumped off across the ground and left me alone.

CURWOOD: Have you ever noticed something about the canopy through the lens of the camera that you hadn't seen before as a scientist?

MOFFETT: Oh, well yes. There's actually a picture in my book of a couple ants called dacoton carrying a caterpillar.

CURWOOD: Where's the picture here in your book?

MOFFETT: What have we got here? Yeah, it's the picture on page 111.

CURWOOD: Could you describe what's going on here?

MOFFETT: Well in this case there are 2 ants that, they're called dacoton armagyron; they're very lumpy-looking ants. And they've killed a caterpillar. They're kind of dumb ants, though; they have a lot of trouble working together to do things. And these 2 ants are trying to help each other carry the caterpillar back to the nest, but they've been so bad at it they've virtually torn the caterpillar apart. And I was just photographing the caterpillar and I get the pictures back and I notice, in the frame, a little fly that was bombarding them. And I hadn't seen it at the time. And it turns out that this is a type of fly that's, that will sneak in and try to eat some of their food, some of the caterpillar. So I went back and got even better pictures of this fly afterwards; but I hadn't even known about it.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me about any unusual plants you found in the canopy?

MOFFETT: Well, plants in the canopy are sometimes not what they seem. There are a number of species that are quite unusual. For instance, philodendrons and monstras are actually dendostaphos plants and these things are everyday plants to us. Yet if you go down to the tropical rainforest you find they're quite bizarre. They're actually very animal-like. They start off on the ground and start growing up the tree trunk, but they eventually lose their stem to earth. And then they remain a yard or two long, and they roam through the trees looking and acting much like a slow-motion snake in search of a place to bask. So you can have one speed up when it's in shadow and then it slows down when it's in a nice, sunny spot.

CURWOOD: What would you like a reader to take away from your book here?

MOFFETT: Ultimately, it's a sense of wonder about rainforests, because I think all too often recently there's too much information on the destruction of rainforests. And people are turned off by it. And I think they have to be reminded again about why one should save rainforests. And to understand the rainforests a little better will help, I think, that way. And to really, the thing I'd hope people would see here is that science doesn't need to be boring. Essentially, adventure can occur to any scientist anywhere; you don't have to be up in a tree. It can be in your back yard. The sheer excitement of a place and the creatures in it, and how they interact, is something that I'm trying to show again and again in the book.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Mark Moffett is an entomologist and photographer. His new book, published by Harvard University Press, is called The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy. Thanks for joining us.

MOFFETT: Thanks, Steve.



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