Plant science in forest canopies – the first 30 years of advances and challenges (1980–2010)


  • Margaret D. Lowman,

    1. Nature Research Center, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC 27601, USA
    2. Mathematical and Physical Sciences, NC State University, Raleigh, NC 27603, USA
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  • Timothy D. Schowalter

    1. Department of Entomology, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA
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Author for correspondence:
Margaret D. Lowman
Tel: +1 941 266 0817



II.History of canopy access13
III.Consequences of whole-tree approaches to forest science15
IV.Canopy communities – their inhabitants, environment, and processes16
V.The role of forest canopies in providing ecosystem services21
VI.Using canopy science as a ‘hook’ to inspire forest conservation21
VII.Conclusions –‘black boxes’ in canopy science that remain22


As an emerging subdiscipline of forest biology, canopy science has undergone a transition from observational, ‘oh-wow’ exploration to a more hypothesis-driven, experimental arena for rigorous field biology. Although efforts to explore forest canopies have occurred for a century, the new tools to access the treetops during the past 30 yr facilitated not only widespread exploration but also new discoveries about the complexity and global effects of this so-called ‘eighth continent of the planet’. The forest canopy is the engine that fixes solar energy in carbohydrates to power interactions among forest components that, in turn, affect regional and global climate, biogeochemical cycling and ecosystem services. Climate change, biodiversity conservation, fresh water conservation, ecosystem productivity, and carbon sequestration represent important components of forest research that benefit from access to the canopy for rigorous study. Although some canopy variables can be observed or measured from the ground, vertical and horizontal variation in environmental conditions and processes within the canopy that determine canopy–atmosphere and canopy–forest floor interactions are best measured within the canopy. Canopy science has matured into a cutting-edge subset of forest research, and the treetops also serve as social and economic drivers for sustainable communities, fostering science education and ecotourism. This interdisciplinary context of forest canopy science has inspired innovative new approaches to environmental stewardship, involving diverse stakeholders.