[Interview] Forests in the sky: ATREE scientist Soubadra Devy on studying tree canopies in India

Image shows a forest canopy

The trees optimize to get the maximum amount of light. Not a ray of light gets wasted in these tropical forests and some mammals like the Lion-tailed Macaque move around in the forest in these canopies and very rarely set foot on the ground.

  • Forest canopies are a key, but often ignored, ecosystem of rainforests, yet harbour more species than any other ecosystem.
  • Biologist Soubadra Devy, who pioneered canopy studies in India, says understanding microclimates in forest canopies can provide a crystal ball for future climate change effects.
  • In this interview with Mongabay-India, she talks about the difficulties of procuring equipment and gear to reach the canopies of rainforests in South India, the high turnover of students and working with tea estates to blend research and adventure tourism.

When life inside a rainforest is so enchanting, what would life on its roof be like? Where the crown of the rainforest trees bursts forth to brush against the atmospheric air, soaking in the sunlight to photosynthesise with a gay abandon not possible at low elevations of the forest, a whole host of fauna and flora would surely follow their lead.

What lies on this green roof of the world? This question has attracted many researchers to explore it. Looking up from the forest floor offered them a limited view: a screen of closely packed leaves guarded the secrets of the life beyond. This curiosity gave rise to the science of canopy research. Explorations since then have discovered that there were more species to be found in the rainforest canopies than in any other ecosystems.

South Asian countries, including India, have not kept pace with the strides the Global North has made in canopy studies. Why is this so? To know more about canopy studies, their significance and their current status in India, Mongabay-India spoke with the “Canopy Lady of India”, Soubadra Devy, Senior Fellow at the SMS Foundation Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, ATREE, who pioneered studies in this field in India. Her strides up the tall trees of the Western Ghats at the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in Tamil Nadu have led to the growth of canopy research in India.

Image shows two people standing in the hollow of a tree looking at the sky
Devy and her fellow scientists at KMTR. Photo courtesy Soubadra Devy.

Mongabay: Why are forest canopies considered “the last biotic frontiers”? How did you become interested in canopy research?

Soubadra Devy: Forest canopies are the farthest or the endpoint beyond which we do not see biota or biotic elements. It all started with pollination studies. I had a colleague who was looking at pollination in KMTR in the dark understorey of the rainforests. The species produced very tiny flowers, which attracted occasional tiny insects. In contrast, whenever I craned my neck and peeped at the canopy through binoculars, I felt that the most action happened up there – the pollinating birds and furry mammals. Then my path crossed with two women – Meg Lowman and Nalini Nadkarni at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, and their spectacular work in the canopy inspired me.

Mongabay: When you started researching this subject, there was little technical support. Can you give a glimpse of your journey, which I think coincides with the canopy-research progress in India?

Soubadra Devy:  It was tough – I started with ladders going up 20-30 meters above the canopy. These ladders adhered to the trunk with just enough space for your toes. I worked on 13 tree species, five individuals of each and had to climb at least five trees daily. Totally knocked out by the end of the day! Then Meg Lowman gave us the first climbing gear that allowed me and my team to access more trees and explore the canopy asking interesting questions. Organising the International Canopy Conference in Bengaluru in 2009 helped us bring all field leaders from outside India and network with Indians whose work touched the canopy in one way or the other.

Read more: The amazing — and unknown — diversity of insects living in the Amazon canopy

Mongabay: Could you talk a bit about the gadgets/techniques used to study canopies in other countries?

Soubadra Devy: For individuals, the single rope technique – a modified mountaineering gear – is the most accessible in terms of cost. However, one has to be thoroughly trained in this. Double rope is the safest, although lugging two ropes in the forest is quite a task. In this technique, you are tethered in one [rope] and the other is for one’s safety; one can interconnect trees with ropes, and people can move among them like zip lines. Nowadays, canopy walkways, which run for kilometres, are being promoted in a major way as they can support many people simultaneously. The king of all techniques is the canopy crane, where you can access an area of almost one hectare. Panama, Australia and Malaysia use them, and recently China has added a couple of them. However, I must add that many of them have been shut down due to running costs.

Mongabay: Why are India and other South Asian countries lagging in this area of research?

Soubadra Devy: The field still has not moved forward for several reasons. India has two spectacular biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas and much remains to be explored. We cannot have everyone using a single rope technique to climb, as it demands a certain mindset and physical strength. We need a two-pronged approach. Canopy access, such as a walkway, which takes many into the canopy easily, will help unravel the processes and functions. It will also help deploy the many contraptions that might be required for scientific studies. Canopy studies, in terms of ecophysiology, are gadgety but critical in understanding climate change-related responses. We have not initiated anything along those lines in India.

The second approach is to initiate biodiversity surveys in the canopy along the lines of Madhav Gadgil’s model used to document biodiversity in the Western Ghats way back in 1996. It has to be organised systematically in India in multiple dimensions. All these require a clear vision, rigorous training in accessing techniques, padded by good insurance coverage and adequate financial support. India will require only a small fraction of the money spent on space research. If we are backed with good funding support and procuring research permits, which is currently a nightmarish process, India could lead some of the efforts globally.

Image shows two people sitting in a tree
Devy and a colleague collect data in the KMTR canopy. Photo courtesy Soubadra Devy.

Mongabay: How do you plan to attract young talent to participate in canopy studies?

Soubadra Devy: Planning canopy access workshops and following it with internships of select individuals who will carry out research is something I am working with. These workshops will function at two different levels. At a basic level, there will be a set of people or citizen scientists for species discovery. At another level, gearing them more for understanding ecology, functions and processes. There is a whole load of opportunities out there.  My colleague Seshadri [Seshadri K. S., ATREE Fellow in residence at SMS Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation], who is interested in the entire soundscape of the canopy, is soon going to set up sound recorders in the canopy.

Mongabay: Pollination research is your field of study. What can canopy research reveal about the decline in pollinators, and can it help bring to the fore new species of pollinators?

Soubadra Devy: At least 50% of wet evergreen forest trees in the Western Ghats are outcrossed and need pollinators for reproduction. There is a lot of scope to discover many species up in the canopy, including bees. Pollinators are critical for restocking the next generation of plants. Habitat destruction along with climate change can have a humungous impact on pollinators which leads to a cascading effect – reduced pollination and lower fruitset can impact the frugivorous community, like monkeys, squirrels, civets etc., leading to poor dispersal of seeds and regeneration, finally to poor ecosystem health.

Read more: In the Borneo canopy, life thrives in surprising ways, camera-trap study shows

Mongabay: Many of the countries in the Global North conduct canopy watch as an arm of adventure tourism. You have been visiting Darjeeling tea estates to promote canopy watches as part of adventure tourism.  Please tell us a bit about this.

Soubadra Devy: In the U.S.A., tree climbing is a popular sport, and groups spend nights on the tree – they are promoted as a safe recreation. Even weddings happen up the canopy, just like under the ocean!

Raja Benerjee, a pioneer in organic tea in Darjeeling, owns the Makaibari tea estates, where he has allowed his workers to practice tea tourism and convert their homes into homestays. During a chat with him, we hinted that the tall trees of the estate could add value to tea tourism, and he welcomed the idea. We soon trained them, and it was amazing to see them easily master the techniques – across gender and age. In contrast, many students give up easily; we have had such a turnover of students in our projects on the canopy.

Image shows a dormouse in a tree
Representational image of a Malabar spiny dormouse, a canopy-dwelling species in India. Photo by Kalyanvarma/Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay: The forests of KMTR have been your base for studying canopies. Please share a memorable experience from here.

Soubadra Devy: I still remember the day I first reached the canopy. It was magical, and subsequently, seeing all denizens over time at eye level was awesome. Nights camps are exceptional – one special experience I recall is seeing the spiny dormouse, which is nocturnal, carry nutmeg seeds almost its size from the ground to up into the canopy.

Canopies can be a hook, as it combines adventure with research. The bulk of biodiversity is in the canopy. It is critical for understanding the microclimate and subsequent responses by biodiversity. The effect of climate change is likely to be witnessed first here. This would be our peephole to unravel the responses of various taxon to actual climate change scenarios.

Read more: A bridge of trees reunites gibbons separated by a railway line in Assam


Banner image: Rainforest canopies grow and spread so as to get the maximum amount of light, creating a dense haven for several species of birds and animals. Photo by Kalyan Varma/Wikimedia Commons.

Exit mobile version