Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nalini Nadkarni

"The Queen of the Canopies" has spent two decades studying the canopies of tropical rain forests and Pacific Northwest rain forest. Home to an incredible diversity of biological life, the canopy is the last biotic frontier. Over 10,000 species of ants have been discovered and catalogued in the canopy; of these 4,000 live exclusively in the canopy. Plants can live in the canopy, getting their moisture from the surrounding mist; they take in water through their leaves rather than their roots.

Nadkarni has shown that epiphytes, which are non-parasitic plants such as orchids and ferns and mosses, that live on the branches and trunks of other plants, trap organic material beneath their root system, forming a nutrient rich mat, allowing trees to form aerial roots stemming from their trunks and branches.

As she puts it, "You are looking at a carpet of carbon capture when you look out over a forest canopy."

Nadkarni is passionate about trees and also about collaborating about trees. She established the International Canopy Network. She buys up Barbie dolls at flea markets, and dresses them in the gear of a tree climber and distributes them as Treetop Barbies to encourage girls to take up this career (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em). She partners with artists, and we had a performance of Biome by dance group Capacitor - using human bodies to mimic the growth of trees.

Nadkarni did research on the mosses that grow on trees and in the canopy - to her surprise they took 20 years to regrow after being stripped. There is a $265M industry harvesting these mosses for use by florists. Nadkarni determined she would try to establish an industry to grow the mosses to prevent this stripping in the forest. She took it to a prison and the inmates became totally engaged in determining which mosses grew best and how to plant and care for them. This grew into a sustainability program which includes worm culture, gardens, and bee keeping. One group is now helping to protect the endangered Oregon spotted frog by nurturing and breeding them in captivity (little ha ha).

Nadkarni is charismatic about science and believes it should be shared. "People tend to compartmentalize, but nature is a common denominator", she says.

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