Plants are miniature factories, using sunlight to generate carbon-based energy and using up the soil’s nutrients. But how much do the chemicals plants generate differ across different environments? And does it reveal clues about the way we interact with rainforests?
The only way to find out was to climb high into the Amazonian canopy. The scientists who did so found the forest’s chemical portfolios differ depending on the height above sea level and contents of the soil.
A massive effort bears fascinating fruit
The team analysed foliage from 3560 canopies in nineteen Peruvian rainforests, finding that the canopy’s chemical signatures are actually organised in a complex patchwork pattern influenced by changes in the soil and elevation. In fact the chemical variations over species that co-exist are much greater than the variation between species themselves. All of which means there’s an incredibly diverse matrix of growth and survival strategies, which in turn reveal how the forests evolved.
The study was undertaken by the Carnegie Institution’s Spectranomics project, based both in the field and in the lab, designed to identify the relationship between plant function and biological diversity. And they were well placed to do the work, considering they hold literally millions of precious samples for posterity, taken from over ten thousand tropical trees and other life forms.
Yet another deforestation wake-up call
The western Amazon is under serious pressure and large areas of the patchwork are under threat. The team views their findings as a wake-up call, as human activity changes a region packed with invaluable and chemically unique forest communities, many millions of years in the making.
Let’s hope the study plays a vital part in protecting these unique rainforest treasures. Like so many others, the scientists involved risked life and limb to identify their findings. Now, more than ever, it’s absolutely vital to keep the pressure on governments, communities, commercial outfits and anyone else with a vested interest in the resources found in rainforests. Time is running out…