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 SM Sehgal Foundation Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, who pioneered studies in this field in India. Her strides up the tall trees of the Western Ghats at the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu have led to the growth of canopy research in India.

Devy and her fellow scientists at Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Credit: Soubadra Devy

Why are forest canopies considered “the last biotic frontiers”? How did you become interested in canopy research?
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 Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve 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.

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?
It was tough – I started with ladders going up 20 m-30 m 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.

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

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

Devy and a colleague collect data in the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve canopy. Credit: Soubadra Devy

How do you plan to attract young talent to participate in canopy studies?
Planning canopy access workshops and following them 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 KS, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment Fellow in residence at SM Sehgal Foundation 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.

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?
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.

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.
In the USA, 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 practise 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.

Representational image of a Malabar spiny dormouse, a canopy-dwelling species in India. Credit: Kalyanvarma/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The forests of Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve have been your base for studying canopies. Please share a memorable experience from here.

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.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.