The Forest Canopy

Scientist Emily Burns hangs next to a redwood crown fern mat, 200 feet above the ground.

Scientists climb redwoods to research life above the ground

The canopy can seem out of reach, hundreds of feet overhead, a mystery just waiting to be discovered. The coast redwood canopy ecosystem remained virtually unexplored and undocumented for most of the last century. It was not until the late 1990s that we first learned about the abundant and rich canopy life hundreds of feet above the ground. These first discoveries came from the pioneering research of Professor Stephen Sillett at Humboldt State University in Northern California.

A multitude of mosses and lichen cling to the bark of redwoods, but they are dwarfed in size by the ferns, shrubs, and even other trees that can reside aloft. They are all called epiphytes – plants growing non-parasitically on the branches and trunks of large host trees. Sustained by winter rain and summer fog, epiphytes thrive in these majestic giants that have been shaped by the centuries into architectural vertical habitats. Epiphytes provide shelter for arthropods, forage for birds, substrate for fungi, as well as nesting material for flying squirrels (Glaucomys oregonensis) and tree voles (Arborimus pomo and A. longicaudus)

A view from the top of a redwood tree. Photo by Marie Antoine.
Epiphytes – by Save the Redwoods
The wandering salamander (Aneides vagrans) is found in Canada and the United States. Its natural habitat is temperate forests. Photo by Flaxington from iNaturalist.
The Sonoma tree vole (Arborimus pomo is a small rodent that inhabits older, coniferous forests in western Oregon and northwestern California. Can you find the nests? Photos by Nick Kerhoulas.

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