Life in the Treetops
April 28, 2020 | Meg Lowman (CanopyMeg), National Geographic Explorer and director of TREE Foundation, has dedicated three decades to the exploration of tree canopies and is one of the first pioneers in the field of treetop science. In this talk, originally presented to an online audience via Zoom, Lowman talks about tree canopy exploration, inclusivity in science, and how her research can be applied to create sustainable practices on local and global scales.
Good afternoon, and welcome, everybody. Great to see that in spite of the special circumstances, we are in we have a great audience for our first virtual weekly lecture. We have more than 200 people and still counting, so I hope everybody is watching that from a safe space. And I guess all of us are getting used to the fact that, instead of being together, we are being together via these virtual means and sharing this afternoon's lecture. My name is Peter Schlosser. I am the vice president, vice provost of Global Futures and the director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.
I would like to welcome you to Arizona State University Wrigley Lecture, with a talk given today by Canopy Meg Lowman, who is the world's premier tree canopy ecologist, as you already probably have guessed from the name. Her talk will be on life in the tree tops, and she will be introduced by Arianne Cease in a moment. Before handing over to Arianne, I just wanted to quickly make a few comments about the nature of the Wrigley Lecture Series on sustainability issues. Many of you know that, have heard that, but I am sure there are a few in the audience who are new to this lecture series.
So the lecture series is funded through the generous support of Julie Ann Wrigley. It brings together world-renowned thinkers and problem solvers to campus, in this case, our virtual campus, and we select through a group that is inclusive. It includes a committee made up of sustainability scientists, graduate and undergraduate students, but also staff of the Wrigley Institute to look for speakers who are distinguished in their field but also can address timely topics.
And these special visitors, we select for the Wrigley Lecture Series, besides giving us insight into timely work and groundbreaking work, are also, of course, stimulating our efforts in our own research, and education, and practice in the area of sustainability and thinking about the future of the planet. I will now introduce Arianne Cease, who will then introduce our Wrigley speaker of today.
Arianne is a senior sustainability scientist and an assistant professor at ASU in the School of Sustainability and I think also has a joint appointment in the School of Life Sciences. Her focus is on the ecology and physiology of organisms in coupled natural and human systems. She directs ASU's Global Locust Initiative in addition to everything else she does in terms of teaching and being part of the faculty. So without further ado, I will hand over the screen to Arianne.
Great. Thank you, Peter, so much for the introduction. And Dr. Lowman, I think if you'd like to go ahead and start your screen on your video as well, we'll put up your slides in just a minute. So we are so honored to have Dr. Meg Lowman to deliver our special Wrigley lecture in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It's titled "Life in the Treetops-- Adventure of a Woman in the Field of Biology."
She's called the real-life Lorax by National Geographic, where she's recognized as a National Geographic Explorer and Einstein of the Tree Tops by the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, she is a tree top pioneer and is devoted over three decades to exploration of forest canopies. This is also earned her the moniker "Canopy Meg." Doctor Lowman is the director of Tree Foundation, which focuses on local and global tree research, education, and exploration, with emphasis on women in the environment.
She is also a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore and has a long list of professional impacts, a few being the founding director of Nature Research Center in Raleigh, North Carolina; Executive Director of Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida; and Inaugural Chief of Science and Sustainability at California Academy of Sciences, not to mention the eight books in over 140 peer-reviewed articles. Dr. Lowman has had far-reaching impacts for the environment and humanity.
Her current priorities include creating a UNESCO site in Malaysian rainforests and partnering with priests in Ethiopia to save the remaining forests. She's advised the Tommy Hilfiger Foundation and served as a climate change advisor to the Florida cabinet. Meg is a strong supporter of increasing diversity and access in science, which she'll talk more about later. In addition, she has the rare honor of being of having an asteroid named after her by astronomist Carolyn Shoemaker. And without further ado, I'm very proud to walk welcome Dr. Meg Lowman.
Thank you so much. I hope all the AV is working, and you can shout at me if it's not. It's really an honor to be the first virtual speaker. I actually could have my pajamas on, and you would probably never know the difference, but maybe half the audience has your pajamas on, too, so I'm really excited to give this lecture and hope that we can have all of the technology work and that we'll have a little Q&A after. I have a very high-fashion mask made by the Hilfigers that I will share with the Q&A after, but I would like to give a special thanks to Chris Boone, my colleague in Malaysia for quite a few years, and Michael Crowe, who's been a real inspiration for a lot of education panels and activities that I've been part of in Washington, and especially to my son Eddie Burgess, who is a proud and productive graduate of your school. So thanks for doing the right thing by my child. It was really much appreciated.
So today, I'd love to find out from all of you-- if I could advance the slides. Oops, here we go. Raise your hand if you've ever climbed a tree. I guess I can't really see you, but you can be thinking about that question, and I'm guessing that, hopefully, at least half the audience has probably been a tree climber in your past as a child or something like that. Technically, astronauts are those people that explore outer space, and arbornauts are those people who explore the tops of trees. So I am one of the world's first arbornauts. And if you ever climbed a tree, you, too, are perhaps an arbornaut.
A lot of students always asked me, well, how come you, as a girl, went into the world of forestry? So I always have to think hard about, what is it that formulates us as faculty, and scientists, and researchers to go into a career? I'm not sure this is advancing. Is it advancing? It's not advancing here. Oh, let's make sure we can see it. I hope someone will let me know if you can't see the pictures.
But this was the forest of my childhood. I grew up in rural upstate New York, where there wasn't really a whole lot to do, except, of course, play outside, so I give a real shout out, especially in this time of COVID-19 and being indoors for any parents, or students, or teachers that get kids outside a little tiny bit. So this was my inspiration for trees, I guess. And when I was a kid, I collected everything, like probably some of you science, faculty, and students. I collected snake skins, and rocks, and shells, and I put them all under my bed, which my mom didn't really appreciate it.
But I did take my little wildflower collection and tiny photo albums to the New York State Science Fair in grade 5, surrounded by boys, outnumbered for most of my career, I might confess. And with all those volcano experiments going off, somehow I got a second prize in the New York State Science Fair, which really catapulted this shy little girl that collected wildflowers into thinking maybe I could become a scientist.
So my career advice for all you students in the audience is really follow your passion. If you can love what you do as a vocation, it's a fantastic opportunity. And even though I grew up in a really small town as a nature nut-- that was my passion, and I followed my passion, and I will give a little bit of a kind of diversion here to one of my close friends and neighbor. I grew up in a neighborhood where this really weird guy named Tommy Hilfiger loved fashion. That was actually weirder than a girl loving wildflowers. And lo and behold, Tommy Hilfiger became a very inspirational fashion designer.
Well, little old neighbor Canopy Meg became a tree climber. So again, the examples are clear. Just do what you love, and maybe it will lead to success. And that's Betsy in the middle, one of my best friends that sold my Hilfiger mask that I will share with you later.
I looked in my family tree. Most people follow the family business when they're in a small town. And I couldn't find any Lowmans that pursued science when I went way back 150 years into the different relatives, but I did have one great grandfather that had a very creative use of corn during the prohibition. So that's about the closest that I could come to botany.
So that's a little bit about how I became a forest scientist and why I love trees. But even crazier is the fact that I ended up in graduate school, got a scholarship to go and work in tropical rainforests in Australia. And lo and behold, when I got there, I found out that about 95% of the trees were way out of reach and out of sight. I kind of liken it to going to a doctor who examines your big toe and tells you you don't need brain surgery. It's pretty crazy to think for over 100 years, foresters only looked at the bottoms of trees. Or if they looked at the tops of trees, they did it, and they cut the tree down.
So I wanted to study leaves. That was a problem. And my advisor said, oh, my gosh. You'll have to climb the trees. And I was pretty scared about that. But it caused me to weld a slingshot out of a piece of metal. It was way back in the dark ages in 1979 when slingshots weren't even allowed in Australia. And I sold a harness with some seatbelt webbing and borrowed a couple ropes from a caver, and away I went up into the tree tops.
And that was the birth of single-rope techniques for science. We had arborists, we had cavers, we had a few other things going on. But in 1979, aside from a couple of platforms for medical research and a few botanical contraptions around the world to look for flowers and fruits, there was no canopy science. And it just suddenly came to life because I needed to look at these leaves at the top of the trees of Australia. And with that very modest tool kit costing only about $300, I can now go to any tree in the world, such as these amazingly tall trees in Taiwan or any other place where we might need to look at whole forest health.
So the toolkit for canopy science started in about 1979. And the next thing that happened after a single-rope techniques was the fact that, suddenly, we figured out that half of the species in the terrestrial part of the planet lived in the tops of trees. So that really inspired a lot of activity in the 1980s to get up there to figure out what was there and also figure out the health of the forests.
The second canopy tool that came along was in the mid 1980s. Suddenly, I was looking at crazy trees like giant stinging trees full of toxic stinging hairs, trying to climb at night, bringing volunteers to the rainforest to help me find insects eating leaves. And none of that was very successful with one rope. So drinking a lot of wine, which is the Australian tradition, with an ecotourist lodge operator, we wrote on the back of a napkin and designed the world's first canopy walkway in South Queensland [INAUDIBLE] National Park.
So to this day, all of the walkways of the world owe their heritage to this original construction. And since then, we've had a few walkways pop up in the US. This is the first canopy walkway in North America, which I built in Williams College when I was a professor there. A little hello to some of my Williams friends that might be in the audience. And then we had the first public canopy walkway down here in Florida in the state park outside of Sarasota.
And another little hello to the Tree Foundation and our inspirational president Elizabeth Moore because this walkway has tripled the visitorship to the park and also allowed a lot of kids to explore forest canopies. So after the 1980s, we had this second method of canopy research well and truly launched.
A third method and kind of exciting but expensive is Canopy Cranes. This was pioneered by the Smithsonian Institution in the early 1990s, but it cost about a million dollars. That's small in the NASA budget or if you're doing physics and wanting to build a particle accelerator, but it's a huge budget for a field biologist. So there are now only about 10 of these cranes around the world, and three of them are funded by the Chinese researchers.
A fourth method and maybe the most fun, like being sort of Dorothy in the wizard of Oz, is using the inflatables, which were originally designed by French botanists with an inflatable balloon, as you see here, an amazing raft that's being moved onto the tops of the trees, and this incredible sled, which allows us as researchers to glide between treetops and sample in the very tops of the trees.
You'll also see from the ratio in this slide that I was still being outnumbered. And I still am being outnumbered in field biology for tropical rainforests. This expedition to Cameroon Africa had only one woman out of 50, I'm embarrassed to say, and you can probably read more about it in my next book. But I would love to recruit some arbornauts in this audience and hope there might be some women students interested in canopy science.
This is the raft that goes with the Inflatable gadgets. You can barely see me at about 1 o'clock in the center there climbing up through a port hole to sample insects in the middle of the night, just like being in a base camp but at the tops of the trees.
The fifth and sixth canopy tools that we now have in have been developed over the last 30 years would be the use of drones, even though they're illegal in a lot of countries, so we have to be a little careful about that. And then, of course, the fabulous lab that you have at ASU, which is Greg Asner's LIDAR operation, using small plane to do amazing aerial surveillance of forests and collect data that we never knew we could possibly collect. So that's pretty exciting stuff.
But what's interesting in canopy science is that over only about 30 years, we've developed a toolkit to study the whole forest. Scuba gear was invented in the 1950s, which opened up coral reefs. But canopy gear was only invented in the last 30 years, meaning we have a lot to catch up to study whole forest research.
But because of this opportunity of studying the whole forest, we now know about carbon sequestration, about productivity, climate change, and how forests are very impactful on rainfall patterns and atmospheric exchange. We know a lot more about medicines. And we of course know that forests are home to half of the biodiversity on the planet. So canopy science opened up a lot of critical knowledge about our forests but very, very recent information.
The only sad news here in this talk today is depicted on this picture. This year alone was the absolute worst year ever for the fate of forests on our planet. And I think all of you are pretty aware that in the top left are the forests in the Amazon burning. In the bottom right are some of my sites in Australia burning.
And, of course, there's been plenty of forest clearing in the tropics as well. So we suddenly have a dilemma on our hands despite amazing research that's been going on with forests, and especially the whole forest including the canopy, we suddenly find ourselves with terrible results. We are losing forests so much quicker than we are saving them. So that's given me a lot of pause as someone who is very passionate about trees and interested in the sustainability of forests.
What I'd like to do in the next 15 minutes is give you a few positive solutions. How is it that we, as scientists, or you as parents or students might reverse this terrible trend? And let's think a little bit harder about how maybe we can reinvent the research pathway that we currently have where people talk about your publications in your books, et cetera, but maybe we never talk about how many people are actually saving acreage of forest.
So I'd like to talk about some ideas, share them with you. You can take them home and use them in different ways, but I have four objectives now in my research that have really helped me magnify my ability as a research scientist.
Number one, always engage students everywhere in any time. If you're a parent, if you're a mom or a dad, if you're a faculty member or whatever, I think we can engage students in all of our work. I've been really doggedly aggressive to bring students in my research.
Here's a fifth grader coming to the Amazon with me to study leaf toughness. I've had third graders as my star researchers. These kids in Florida actually discovered a new species of weevil that were eating bromeliads here in our canopy and published their results. So the secret there is you don't need a PhD to be a scientist. You just need to observe and maybe have some access to the treetops.
In other countries, I think we need to work extra hard as researchers whenever we work in countries that need more research and more technology. We need to think creatively about how to get kids involved. These are students in Ethiopia, where I'm working really hard to save their lives 3% of forest. And these kids are so thirsty for knowledge about their biodiversity. But without computers or books in their schools, we have to think of new ways to educate kids and involve them in stewardship of our forests.
If you're a parent like me, you can get your kids involved in nature right now during the isolation of COVID-19. Maybe you can do some experiments in your kitchen or show your kids a little sidewalk crack if you live in New York City and see what lives in it. These are my two boys. They were my best research assistants. Mind you, as a parent, it's a dictatorship. So as a single mom, they had to come and look for beetles with their mom. But the good news is I think we can all engage kids at different levels and different types of activities.
Probably my biggest passion after trees is engaging girls and minorities in science, which is something I've been really keeping my eye on throughout my career. My most recent NSF grant was a real privilege because I worked with mobility-limited students who are always excluded from field research and always relegated to laboratory work. In this case, they learned to climb. They went into the canopy. They were absolutely fantastic. There's Rebecca there on the left who even came to the Amazon with me.
And lo and behold, these students with summer reading programs actually discovered eight new species in the oak and maple trees of Kansas and Massachusetts. So the species they discovered are pictured here. You could quiz yourself. Does everybody know what this cool thing is? It's probably the commonest thing outside of your window right now and is definitely the commonest species in forest canopies-- little water bear or tardigrades, which is an extremophile. It only needs a little, tiny bit of moisture to keep itself alive. And these were the species that my mobility-limited students worked out for their summer research experiences.
A second way we can all look at research and forest sustainability is involving local people. And so this has really, come home to me in the last 10 or 20 years of research in a lot of countries that don't have as much technology and wealth as North America is so fortunate to have. These are some of the moms in Assam in Northern India where I've been working. And, again, they spend most of their day finding food and water for their families.
But on the other hand, here are the girls at the local school. And so what I've been trying to do as a scientist, especially a female scientist, is figure out ways I can always involve the young people in different countries where I work. And in the case of India, we've had some amazing and wonderful tree-climbing training, just a couple extra pairs of khaki pants in my luggage so the girls can change out of their saris. And some wonderful experiences in the treetops might just lead to giving some of these girls empowerment to allow them maybe to be the next leaders of environmental issues in places like India or other countries like Ethiopia, where they may not have the role models that some of us enjoy.
This is Ethiopia. I was a Fulbright scholar at the largest university in Ethiopia called Jimma. This is the entire science faculty of women. It was very disheartening to find out there were only six of them. But again, we started a women's mentoring team, and one thing leads to another, a couple of them are now getting scholarships to study advanced science in the states, and we just have to build a little wall, women helping women, but I think it's really, really important for us to make sure these local stewards have opportunities.
My third lesson of life and goal for all of you to think about if you are involved in research or even if you're a citizen, scientist, or a traveler of some kind is to be thinking about different stakeholders to solve conservation issues. I grew up in an era where everybody thought big governments were going to save forests. And we all know now that was pretty unsuccessful. So over my career, I suddenly realized that reaching out to different audiences has been much better in terms of achieving the goals. So right now, I'm working with priests in Ethiopia. Everyone says, oh, surely, science and religion don't go together. But they actually do.
And in this case, I've been posting workshops for all of the Ethiopian orthodox priests who are indeed the stewards of the last bits of forest in Ethiopia, which I'll show you in a minute. Again, I'm a little outnumbered, but the good news is these priests have never had an ecology workshop. They've certainly never had a computer that they could look up distance and distributions of trees in their own countries. So together, we have realized that we need to save the last native trees in this very important country.
This photo, sad to say, are the last remaining trees in Ethiopia. You can probably barely see the little green dots, which are called "church forest." Because in the middle of each of those tiny green dots is a church. And, of course, surrounding those green dots is subsistence agriculture. And if we get a little closer, you'll see the church in the middle, and you'll realize that the Ethiopian orthodox church has, for thousands of years, had a mission to save all of God's creatures, hence the churchyard. And as a conservation biologist, my mission is to save biodiversity.
So in a lot of ways, church and science do go together in this conservation mission. And once I was able to explain to the priests about the real value of their trees and the fact that not too many trees exist outside of the church forest, they came up with the solution, not me, and they are now building stone conservation walls around their church forests. They get the stones from the farmers, who are thrilled to remove them from the fields. And they build the walls a little bit further away from the actual forests so they can replace new native species. And they keep the cattle and goats away from eating the seedlings and all of the understory, and they give the local people a sense of a boundary.
So today, in Ethiopia, if you go there, you will be lucky to see these amazing conservation walls. And the people are so proud of them. And right now, we are over halfway in a goal to save the 40 highest biodiversity forests in Ethiopia. Believe it or not, we only need $200,000 to complete our goal. Conservation in a country like Ethiopia is so inexpensive compared to Brazil, or North America, or Mexico, but that amount of money will allow us to put walls up around these 40 churches. We're over 20 towards our goal, but we're excited to achieve that goal in the next couple of years through my small foundation called The Tree Foundation.
Here's another example of a diverse stakeholder involved in conservation. This is related to ASU, one of your Thunderbird school, your new business school alliance had the vision and foresight as a corporate person to be philanthropic and save an entire rainforest in Malaysia. So on Penang Hill, there's now an eco park called "the habitat," which is giving millions of people an education about rainforests. And we've put canopy walkways there and canopy education up there.
And the next step in this progress will be, hopefully, creating a UNESCO world heritage area for the forests that extend beyond the park. So again, as a scientist, I was used to writing grants and rewriting grants, but having some kind of corporate philanthropy allowed the check to get written and the job to get done, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience to create canopy research over in Malaysia. Number four and my final goal as a scientist for ways to make a difference in my world of canopy research was, suddenly, the tool kit that I actually invented has become really useful in conservation. And in this case, by building canopy walkways, not just for research but actually for eco tourism, I suddenly find myself in a place where we can actually save forests. This little picture depicts a Costa Rican canopy walkway in the top left, a new walkway in Rwanda on the right, and a beautiful walkway in Vermont in the bottom left.
And even though Vermont is not a high biodiversity forest, it will be a great educational center. And what these walkways are proving is that if we hire those local stewards, especially women and families to operate these walkways, we can position the walkways in high biodiversity forests, and we can create sustainable income for the people that live there out of the tourism instead of logging.
I want to give a little shout out here for my flagship walkway. This is the longest walkway in a tropical forest, down in the amazonian Peru, where I've been working for 25 years. And this walkway actually employs 100 people. And it has led to the development of an enormous reserve up in Northwestern Peru, which is exactly what we would hope to happen. The canopy walkway attracts ecotourists. The ecotourists pay locals for being guides, and boat drivers, and cooks. And lo and behold, everybody wants to save the forest for the future instead of logging it.
So with that type of example, I just last week launched a pretty big program, which I hope is the culmination of the next chapter of my career, called "Mission Green," which is to put these walkways in the highest biodiversity canopies of the world. I want to thank my friend and sister Sylvia Earle, who is an oceanographer. She has had a Mission Blue operation for 10 years, finding hope spots in oceans. And she has been willing to mentor me so that I can find hot spots in oceans-- I mean, in forest canopies, which are the oceans of the trees, I guess.
I'd also like to give a big thanks to Ed Wilson, who's listened to my ideas through many lunches up at Harvard. And of course, he wrote a fabulous book recently called Half Earth, where he proposed that we save half the planet for 99% of the species and the other half for that one species called Homo sapiens.
So I suggested, Ed, what if we saved half of the canopies, which have half of the species? Then, we would be way ahead of the game with a lot less land area. And he thought that was a very cool idea. So with Ed's list in his book of some dozen forests that he calls the most important to save, we are now launching Mission Green to put canopy walkways in those designated forests of Professor Wilson's choice.
Here's a map of the progress to date. We have the red spots, meaning canopy walkways that are existing. And you have locals operating them. Some of them can use a little more signage. Some of them can use a little more help probably, developing the education messages.
But the good news is they're really up and running. And the yellow dots are those proposed walkways in Ed Wilson's book, Half Earth, which are forests we really, really need to save. And there is no time to waste before they will disappear. So I'm excited. A walkway's being designed in the redwoods right now. You see that slowed down on the West Coast? We need one in the great smoky mountains. We need one in Ethiopia. We need one in Madagascar. There is one being designed in Mozambique as we speak. And we certainly need one in India.
So there is a lot of opportunity here. We're about $5 million funded of a $10 million project to make all of these walkways come through. And for me personally, as a woman in science, I'm really excited about how this project brings so much environmental justice to all of the sites where these walkways exist by hiring women, by getting women operators, and engaging locals as stewards of these operations, I think we can really ensure the conservation potential.
I also want to give a little sense of the future of Mission Green and student involvement. Even though we have no funding for this yet, I think the opportunity for students to study in these canopy walkways will be fantastic. As I mentioned a bit earlier, we now, as scientists, believe that 50% of terrestrial biodiversity is in forest canopies.
Well, guess what? Less than 10% of that has ever been classified or discovered. So that gives students a huge opportunity to do good and develop new ideas and new discoveries in forest canopies. This is Anthony at 330 feet in a Redwood tree. So I think a lot of my students climb so much better than I do now, and they are the future of our conservation of forests on this planet.
So finally, we have half furs and we have half canopy, which is now half complete. We need five more walkways in high biodiversity forests. We need to have training programs for these stewards of the walkway projects, which is very possible and doable. And last but not least, we can create student opportunities for discovery and conservation in some of these incredible hot spots on the planet.
So with that, I'll just close by saying, I'm putting a lot of this in a book. There are a lot more canopy stories yet to come. I hope that my book called The Arbornaut will be published next year with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and talk a little bit more about the discoveries in the canopy, the challenges of being a woman in science, and, best of all, hopeful solutions for all of our forests. So with that, thanks a lot for listening. And here are some websites if you want more information on anything to do with tree canopies. You know where to find them. And thank you so much, ASU, for letting me talk about my favorite subject-- trees.
Well, thank you so much for this fantastic and inspiring talk and all the work that you do make. So we have a few minutes for questions, a little over 20 minutes, which is great. So I have a list of questions. Some of them coming from participants as they registered. And then some questions are coming in through the Q&A.
So we're going to do our best to try and get through them. And I wanted to start out by going back to your mantra, which is no child left indoors. And one aspect of that is increasing access, and you've done fabulous work increasing wheelchair access for treetop exploration. So we had a question that was specific about ADA access to walkways, how that differs in different forests.
Right, such a great question and, obviously, something I really care about. Believe it or not, some 20 years ago, I built the first ADA-accessible canopy walkway when I was the director of Selby Gardens in Florida, And we had the ADA team come, and launch it, and cut the ribbon, and tearfully take their wheelchairs up the slope, which was, of course, six degrees and very conducive for them to do that. So I've always been really sensitive about thinking of older people. My mom's 91 now with a walker-- and thinking of moms in strollers, which was me for many years, carting my babies as well as kids in wheelchairs. So the access to canopy walkways is really important and critical.
There are some, like the one we built in Australia is the first ever walkway that goes straight out from a Hillside, which makes it perfectly accessible. There are a few others that are not, and we've worked with parks, and we've worked with the ADA committees to make sure that the knowledge is shared with people.
The one in the state park in Florida, for example, is not ADA, but all the signage and all of the sort of experiential walks out to the walkway-- benches, areas, educational material is available for ADA. And that's because, in state parks, something like only 10% of the parks are accessible for ADA. I don't think that's a great thing, but I think it's a necessary thing. Because nobody in a wheelchair wants us to cut down 1,000 trees to make sure that everything is accessible.
So what we do is the best we can. There are even a couple of gadgets in Taiwan. I went up a battery-powered [INAUDIBLE] into the canopy. So there are ways we can take anybody into a tree top that we need to. And you probably saw from my talk that I did a project with kids in wheelchairs learning canopy access.
So the good news is it's really possible. And the bad news is it's probably not 100% everybody all the time. But nothing probably is in this world of ours. I'm sure that even a lot of people don't want to go into a radioactive lab. And probably one or two people might not even want to go to the canopy if they have a little bit of kind of fear of heights, so I'll leave it at that. But it is something that we keep in very close attention and trying our best to make sure we can cover the bases.
Thank you for making those advancements. So you're indeed a huge supporter of childhood education. And in fact, your work is featured in a children's book that's used for next generation science standards in middle schools. And when we spoke earlier a few days ago, you mentioned that you always get the following questions from kids, and I thought it would be fun to pose them to you now.
So I have three. One is, how do you go to the bathroom in trees? Hard questions. Two, have you ever fallen out of a tree? And three, because you've never gone an expedition without them, I also wanted to add in the timely of, how big is your Oreo stash for quarantine?
[LAUGHS] All right, so first of all, I do take Oreos whenever I travel. I'm still hoping Nabisco might fund a canopy walkway. If anyone has a connection, let me know. For reasons I can't explain, I love chocolate I love cookies. And when I first took Oreos on an expedition, they were so much loved by children and villages.
And I know it's not good to give candy to too many people that don't have access to dentists, but just once in a while, we would have a lot of fun cheery Oreo cookies. And of course, they would share things with me, like eating live ants or live grubs or something like that. So that has become kind of my backpack snack, which has really been important, too, because chocolate, when you're up high and you're really hot and dry, helps. Water and chocolate are a good combo.
How do I go to the bathroom? Yeah, I did this Jason Project with Bob Ballard, which was so exciting for, gosh, 10 years in the '90s and early 21st century. We had this virtual expedition program called the Jason Project for Middle School Kids. And Bob did his undersea thing with the Alvin submarine and a few other things, and I. Did by canopy thing with ropes and platforms.
And of course, most of the time, I was in the canopy all day. We did a broadcast at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00. We had a really rugged schedule. And so the kids would always giggle and say, how do you go to the bathroom? And I would have to tell them that I ran down five bridges and six platforms to get to a little tiny shelter on the forest floor to go to the bathroom.
But the film crew, who was all-male, each had his own jug that they precariously balanced on a tree crotch, and all they had to do was kind of turn around and walk over a bridge to utilize more convenient bodily structures than what females have. So it was always a little bit of a gender joke and issue that it was tougher for women to be in the canopy than men.
And the third question, I forgot what you said. Was have you ever fallen out of a tree?
Oh, right. And that is an important thing. You know, climbing a tree is a lot like riding a bike. It requires safety, and it requires attention to safety. And I will confess that when I was a graduate student in a hurry, it was thundering and lightning, and I was trying to get down from a eucalyptus tree in Australia, but I was only about 15 feet high. I forgot to clip on. So I tumbled, I hit the ground. I didn't break anything except for my honor and my humility. I was really horrified. I thought maybe I'm not good enough to be a scientist because this was so careless.
I wrote about it in my book called Life in the Treetops and just wanted people to know that you have to pay attention to detail. And most of the accidents in forest canopies, which are very few I would add, are human error, just the same way that we might be a little reckless and not watch when we cross the street or something like that.
But all good, I have a real respect for heights is what I tell people-- not a fear, but I don't have fearlessness, which I think could be a little detrimental. If you're really not afraid of anything but you're climbing up a tree, it might not be such a good combination. It's good to have a respect for the branches, the wind, and mother nature.
Excellent advice. So moving on the theme of access, we have a question from Jonathan Fink. He says, hi, Meg. Can you comment on the potential value of setting urban forest canopies? Are there some urban canopy walkways?
Oh, fantastic, such a great question. Well, number one, of course, as we approach or almost have exceeded 50% of people living in cities, it's so critical to have urban trees. I was very lucky to serve on the Urban Tree Council for San Francisco, which, I might add, was really dedicated to saving every single tree in the community, and it was an honor to be on that committee. We need urban trees for so many things. We need them for spiritual reasons and happiness. We need them for shade, and oxygen, and homes for pollinators and biodiversity. We need to do better at keeping big trees.
My biggest piece of advice for people anywhere is save big trees. Cutting a big tree down and planting a seedling is not an equal exchange, so I don't think that's good enough. And I'm grateful to people like John Fink, whom I think are doing calculations on the value of urban trees. In some countries like India, urban trees are actually spiritual trees, like the beautiful strangler figs that grow in every village and are used for worship.
In America, I'm afraid, they're just kind of convenience items, and they get cut down whenever somebody wants to build a new high rise or expand a road. So maybe we need to develop a little more respect for our urban trees and start to recognize the economic value of those trees. And it's really, really important for educating kids as well to have a little bit of an opportunity to perhaps see a bird nest or perhaps see leaves budding out in the spring and get a little sense of what trees are all about. So I hope we can do better with urban trees. And I think ASU probably have some good projects with different urban ecology. And I hope trees are one of your bigger pillars of research.
Absolutely. So thinking about timely questions, several participants have commented on the Australian fires and, specifically, did the trees from your PhD work survive the Australian fires? And what action are taken after the horrifying fires?
Yeah this is such a tough subject, and it's really close to me and near and dear to my heart. The farm where Eddie was born, my ASU graduate, was all but burned. And it actually was sold after six generations because most of the farmers are finding they can't support enough livestock to make a living anymore, so that's how close the fires came to our actual home and livelihood. Some of the areas in Queensland where I did my research with Joe Connell, who was a really cool ecologist from Santa Barbara, we did some studies on species diversity, and rainforests, and coral reefs.
And some of those plots have burned up, which is heartbreaking because nobody thinks that rainforests should burn. But the bigger fires were in the dry forests, which I did all of my postdoc work and a lot of eucalyptus dieback studies on insects, and pests, in eucalypt canopies. So much of that acreage has burned, obviously, millions of acres. There've been estimates of the numbers of species and individual animals that have been burned with those fires, which we all know is catastrophic, even though we probably can't calculate them exactly.
I think the hard concept for people to understand is that we can't turn around and just save 1,000 koalas and let them go back on the land next year. It's going to take 50 or 100 years for those eucalypts to grow back into canopy trees to support the foliage that koalas need and a lot of the other organisms that need the forest habitat in Australia. So we're looking at a really dire situation for those dry-forest species in Australia and not easy answers. Because people usually think, oh, I'll send a little check. They'll plants of trees. It'll be fixed by tomorrow.
But, again, going back to that urban statement that I made, big trees matter. It's not about small trees. They can't support the koalas. They can't shade all of the livestock and all of the other animals like the kangaroos. We need to replace the forest, and that's going to take a lot of time. And nobody even knows how to replace some forests. In the rainforests of Queensland, it could be 1,000 or more years to replace all those little pollinators on orchids, and epiphytes growing in the canopy, and vines dangling down from the branches. So we really are looking at a lottery in trying to replace tropical rainforests. We might do better with these dry forests in Australia because they're simpler forests, but it's still a heartbreaking situation because it just can't happen in a matter of years or even in a matter of a decade. It's going to take more than my lifetime and your lifetime to recover that loss.
Wow. Speaking of big trees that matter, moving-- in addition to fires, we have the current pandemic situation. And one of the questions was, how is the pandemic impacting villages in the Amazon River basin?
Right. Well, the one thing about the pandemic, at least in North America as we've all seen, it's given nature a little reprieve. It's kind of a bittersweet pill, isn't it, to have people recording you know bobcats walking through cities and birds taking over sidewalks and other things that are kind of pleasant. In the Amazon, unfortunately, it's been really disastrous. I just lost, two weeks ago, one of my best friends, a 25-year-old guy who grew up in one of the villages and was absolutely the best birder and the best knowledge of medicinal plants within 100 square miles.
He succumbed to the COVID because an American tourist had gone there, a little selfishly, not been well, came home, and of course now up and down that region of the Amazon, there is a lot of illness. And I think the hard part is that in places like Amazonian Peru and probably also in Ethiopia, they don't have the finance to buy these PPEs or bid against all of these American states and governments to buy ventilators. So they have no way of fighting this kind of epidemic.
Once it settles in, usually through somebody who's come in from afar, it's pretty devastating. So I'm very, very concerned. We have a little fundraiser going on now to help some of the families. They don't have food banks, and they don't have Medicare or health insurance, of course, so it's a very different life to be a victim of some of these outside diseases.
And I'm really hopeful that some of these folks will go back to their villages and stay very isolated in the Amazon so we can safeguard their incredible knowledge and their incredible stewardship of these forests. Because people like that can't be replaced. They can't go to graduate school and learn how to catch a piranha or learn where all of those amazing screaming piha's nest, you know? They have a knowledge that we can't replace this westerners, so I'm really, really crossing my fingers that they can get through this safely.
Well, if you'd be willing to share a link to the fundraising efforts--
Oh, thanks. Right, it's on our Tree Foundation website, but I will send you that. Thanks.
Great. Yeah, we'll make sure so everyone will go to the website. Moving to a bit colder climates, several folks noticed the dot in Antarctica.
Oh, good, that's extra credit if you noticed the dot in Antarctica. I'm so proud of you, whoever you are. That's a shout out to my other son, James. I have studied the canopies of Antarctica, which is why I earmarked that little spot. We will not be building a canopy walkway there, but we laugh about it because my son James, when he was in high school, actually fundraised himself and got the money to go down there and study water bears on the mosses and lichens.
And they are incredibly profuse in these little itty bitty plants, and I followed up with two expeditions to Antarctica, one with NC State and one with the University of Florida when I was a professor here. And we took students down, and that was not our main mission, but we sampled for water bears, and every single collection had a water bear.
So I always make a note of that because I want people to think about the fact that canopy is a relative term. We think of a canopy as being 100 or 200 feet high, which it usually is with tropical and temperate trees, but down in Antarctica, canopy really is one to two inches high. So maybe we can build a little toothpick bridge or something for the water bears, but that's about it.
Water bears are so cool.
They are amazing. [LAUGHS]
Fantastic. I'm trying to read through all the questions to the audience. You have such fantastic questions, and it's tough to navigate all of them. Lots of, thank you for being an inspiration, particularly to young women in science. All right, I'm going to embarrass myself because I don't know how to say the scientific name, but I have a question from a 10-year-old who is much smarter than I am, which is, do you see a lot of Anolis carolinensis in the canopy?
Oh, good question! And I just was rereading some of the work that was done by Roman Dial and Joan [INAUDIBLE] years ago excluding Anolis in the canopies of Puerto Rico. I do. I actually see more big iguanas in the canopy because they're so laid back, and they don't want to move, where some of the smaller things are a little bit more running around doing fun things, but I haven't yet seen those amazing, flying lizards in Malaysia. I'm waiting for that to happen.
But stay tuned on my website treefoundation.org. We just finished a National Geographic grant on the reptiles and amphibians of the church forest canopies in Ethiopia. And I'm excited for us to produce those results, and make a field guide, and share that. Because, again, those are tree canopies that nobody has ever studied in until we got permission from the priest because they trust me now with all of my efforts with them. So if you want to go and see some new species, maybe you'd like to come with me to look at some of those African canopies in the future.
Oh, that's a fantastic invitation. All right, so two last questions. One is-- so you've done an excellent job of highlighting how you were and are a minority in much the work you do. I think the numbers were 499 boys to 1 girl, in several instances. But that didn't stop you from being on the cutting edge and a pioneering treetop exploration. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what that journey has been like for you and perhaps offer some points. I know you covered a lot of this in your talk already, but some points you found critical for supporting minorities in science.
Sure, I love that subject. And hopefully, I'll cover that a lot better in the book that I'm writing for next year called The Arbornaut because I really care about that. I was such a shy kid. I never spoke up in class. I threw up in graduate school when I had to give a talk at Duke for a botany class. I was that bad. So I'm always trying to be empathetic to those students that might have less opportunity or maybe they came from a background that was more humble or they didn't have role models, which I didn't.
So I think it's just really important to try to mentor them as much as we can. As I mentioned, I was a single mom. And when I was a professor in Florida, I found that a lot of the minority students flocked to my office. Maybe I thought a little bit more down to earth. Maybe there's some ability to reach out, you've been through the school of hard knocks yourself. People can probably feel more comfortable.
So I would say to everybody, we all need to reach out in different ways. Maybe you can give your students Oreos, whatever it takes. But I do think that if we can find role models for more girls and more students that might have come from challenging backgrounds and give them a sense of worth, which took me, actually, a long, long time to kind of be in a place where I felt I was able to give back. I think it's really, really important. And it's still not equal.
And I will just say with all of my heart and soul, it's getting better in the States, but I still see examples of women not helping other women, which disappoints me. And it certainly is desperate in a lot of countries like Ethiopia and certain parts of India. India is getting great for engineering careers for women, but it still lags behind for field biology. So I think we have to be very cognizant of the international role of women, not just the 330 million people in this country.
Excellent. Excellent advice. So in closing, one very important question, which is, what can we do? What are the three or more things that we can do to support your goals?
Right. And you know, selfishly, help me find a good canopy walkway site in Madagascar, the great Smoky Mountains, and India. But beside those big goals, there are a lot of things we can do. And I think, first of all, in this time of isolation, it is important if you have access to kids to give them knowledge. Share books about rainforests. Teach them about trees. Let them even look at little bugs in the corner of your living room, which, guess what? They're probably there even though you might not know it.
But the other thing we eventually need to do is really change how we consume. It's the American consumption that's driving most of deforestation. We're the ones responsible for losing those forests in Malaysia because it's all being cleared for palm oil, which is in our shampoo, in our soap, in our food, in our upholstery in cars and plastic materials, et cetera, et cetera. And we're also the ones responsible for all the soy grown in Brazil, and the beef, and a lot of the different crops that are now being exported to here.
And people down there would like to make money from our market, so I would beg of you to go to your grocery store and insist they label the products. Go to your policy makers and ask for labels. Europe has much better labels on products about where they came from, how the energy footprint was formulated, and they even put the energy footprint on a lot of things. We need to do better as a nation because I don't think most people buy bananas or coffee because they're trying to hurt their grandchildren's lifestyle. I think they buy it because they don't know.
And that's my last thought. If you're an adult or even a college student and you drink coffee, make sure it's shade grown. And yes, it costs $0.05 more a cup, but you're buying something that keeps the rainforest intact instead of supporting industries that clear-cut it. And the same for timber. Don't ever buy imported timbers unless you're absolutely sure they have a sustainable source. We can fix this next year because we are the drivers of most of these crops. But people just forget about that, and they tend to want to blame the Brazilians, or the Indonesians, or someone else somewhere else, but we really are the source of solution. And so the good news is we have a lot of power and opportunity.
All right, well, there is a lot that we need to be doing. Thank you for all the advice. So to close, is there anything I didn't ask you that you think I should have or any final closing thoughts you'd like to add?
Oh, my gosh. Well, I guess I'm just grateful for the opportunity. Thanks so much. I'm really excited that ASU continues to push the envelope. I would just say that we're at a point in time now, where it's an emergency in science and especially in conservation biology. We need to stop just rewarding people to publish a paper and sticking it in a journal that no Ethiopian can read. We have to start rewarding people that make a difference in different metrics.
And it only can start at the top. I would beg your provost, your presidents, the leadership of colleges to stop doing science the way we're doing it because it hasn't really helped the planet. It's been great for promotions, and great for salaries, and great for conferences, but I feel like we have to turn this around, and we don't have a lot of time. And I know that's a really radical thought, and obviously it puts me at odds and gets me in trouble, but I just think somebody has to say it. So I've said it. Thank you.
Thank you so much. I fully agree, and we're working on it.
Thank you so much, Dr. Lowman, for taking the time to be with us today and for all of your inspiration and words of wisdom. And I hope the participants have enjoyed your time with us here today and heed Dr. Lowman's advice. So thank you.
This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability for educational and noncommercial use.