Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 11:39 pm | Fair 56º


‘Canopy Meg’ Takes Study of Treetops to New Heights

Biologist encourages students to pursue careers in science

Conservation biologist Meg Lowman (affectionately known as “Canopy” Meg) spoke about her career and her work at a recent Channel City Club meeting.

A lifelong “arbornaut,” Lowman has been called the mother of canopy research and has spent her career exploring the biodiversity of the forest canopy and conserving forests worldwide. She now works at the California Academy of Sciences.

Lowman grew up in rural upstate New York, and always enjoyed being outside. She said the tree forts she built when as a child were what sparked her interest in trees.

Growing up she was considered a “geek” for being a young girl interested in nature and bird-watching, but that never stopped her from competing in the county science fair or pursuing higher education in science.

In college, Lowman went to Australia on scholarship to study that country's rainforests. At the time, canopy science was a new field; all that people knew about trees was based on observations made from the ground.

Needing a way to get higher into the trees, Lowman helped develop new tree-climbing gear, known as single-rope technique. This method involves using a slingshot to get a climbing rope into a tree.

Next, she designed the first canopy walkway, a specialized bridge suspended high in the trees, to allow multiple people to be in the canopy at once.

Scientists have estimated that half of all of the species of living things dwell in the treetops. Because of deforestation, some of these species are disappearing before they are even studied.

Lowman stressed the importance of science as a tool for protecting the Earth. Scientists, she said, should do their work not to get awards, but to benefit our planet. Lowman is a strong advocate for women to become more involved in science. She also encourages young people to explore nature and possibly become scientists.

She related how a group of third-graders she took into the canopy helped find a new species of weevil. She has also provided opportunities for mobility-limited children to get involved in canopy science, and has worked with Bob Ballard on the Jason Project with a “virtual expedition” program to bring her work into fifth-grade classes.

Lowman has worked in various places around the globe, including Ethiopia, which is in desperate need of protection for its trees.

Only 5 percent of Ethiopia's forests remain, most of which surround Coptic Christian monasteries, which have small “islands” of trees scattered around them. In the rest of Ethiopia, there are no forest pollinators, no wildlife and no shade.

Lowman has been working with the people of Ethiopia to protect its surviving trees.

For example, she met with 200 priests from an isolated Coptic Christian monastery and talked to them about the importance of trees and made an agreement to help save the trees. In this situation, it was advantageous to be a woman because the priests distrusted men who might want to convert them to another religion.

Another place where Lowman has worked is Western Samoa. Its residents needed money to build a permanent school building, and they were going to resort to logging as a source of income for the new school.

After meeting with them, Lowman helped them secure a loan to build a canopy bridge. This allowed the Samoans to make money off of ecotourism while saving their trees.

Lowman wants to spread the message that science should be for the people and for the planet. She believes young people considering career options should choose a future they are passionate about, instead of choosing one based on the paycheck or what is popular. For her, that career was canopy science.

— Anne Burdette, a sophomore at Anacapa School in Santa Barbara.

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