In the rainforests of Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and New Guinea and Australia, there's not much happening on the ground. In fact, it's pretty dark down there, with only a few animals and plants, and just the tiniest smidgeon of sunlight seeping through from above. Up in the treetops -- that's where the real party is going on! Soaring 100 feet (30.5 meters) or more in the air, the rainforest canopy is a layer of treetops, other vegetation, insects and microscopic life forms that towers so high above the Earth that human beings don't often get a close look at it, except when they glance down at it from an airplane. Plant life needs sunlight to survive and the rainforest trees thrust their leaves up into the canopy where they can get as much of it as they can. And it's not just leaves: There are so many different kinds of plants and animals up there in the canopy that they may represent as much as 75 percent of all species on Earth.
But let's suppose you're a scientist studying the rainforest canopy or even just a tourist on a tropical vacation who wants to see the most spectacular part of the rainforest up close. How would you get up there? Sure, you were probably good at climbing trees when you were a kid, but could you climb a tree 100 feet (30.5 meters) or more tall? Even more importantly, would you want to? That's a pretty long way to fall if you lose your grip or stumble on a broken branch. Worse, most rainforest trees don't even have branches for climbing at levels lower than the canopy. You'd have to be Spiderman -- or maybe an actual spider -- to climb one of these trees without special equipment.
And yet the importance of the rainforest canopy to species diversity makes it pretty urgent that scientists find their way into it and study it in detail. And when scientists go someplace as spectacular as the soaring treetops of the tropics, tourists are bound to follow. On the next few pages we'll look at some of the adventurous ways scientists have braved the dangers of the treetops and at ways that you can have your own rainforest adventures when you visit the tropics. Oh -- and we'll also look at some of the dangers involved in climbing around in some of the tallest trees on Earth.
Going Up the Hard Way
The most obvious way to get to the top of a tree is to climb it. But climbing trees to reach the rainforest canopy is a lot like climbing a mountain. It's a long way to the top and there isn't much to hold on to. Basically, you need lots of rope and a way to get it high enough into the trees that it can be climbed or used as a pulley to haul equipment and explorers into the towering branches. As far back as the late 1920s, cannons were used to fire ropes into the canopy and those ropes were then used to haul scientists to the top. Ladders were also a popular way of exploring the canopy, at least for smaller trees. More recently, slingshots have been used to shoot fishing lines into the trees that can be used to raise more substantial climbing lines. By the 1970s, rainforest scientists were using a wide array of mountain climbing (and even cave-exploring) techniques to scale these huge tropical trees.
Once in the treetops, the explorer's adventures are hardly over. Platforms have to be hauled up and placed in the branches to create a base from which research can be performed. And there's danger aplenty on those high branches. These dangers include not only falling to the ground like a human meteor, but heat, dehydration, and -- maybe worst of all -- insects. Massive swarms of bees and wasps can be deadly to a scientist who gets them angry. Troops of ants can produce acid that eats right through the ropes holding treetop platforms in place. Forget about the danger of predators on the rainforest floor. The insects in the canopy can be every bit as deadly.
Rainforest Canopy Rafting
Rafting in the treetops? Rafts are for rivers, right? Well, not always.
Rainforest rafting is actually a form of ballooning, where explorers send a hot air balloon or dirigible floating above the canopy. To get scientists down into the treetops where they can explore canopy life, they suspend a sled or "raft" underneath the balloon to lower the explorers into the vegetation. Rainforest explorer Dany Cleyet-Marrel invented the canopy raft in 1985, though he had been using balloons for exploration since the mid-1970s.
Canopy rafts can rest on the treetops and are large enough to hold dozens of researchers. In fact, a canopy raft expedition consists of around 50 people, according to Wired UK, and can cost about a million dollars. But in terms of rainforest research, it pays big dividends. Scientists can live in the canopy for weeks, getting to know it like their own neighborhood -- assuming they have poisonous insects and deadly snakes for neighbors.
Walkways and Cranes
You know those huge, mechanical cranes you sometimes see at construction sites that look like long-necked dinosaurs that somehow escaped from Jurassic Park? Well, those can be used to explore the rainforest canopy too, lifting explorers into the heights where they can construct observation platforms. Before cranes became popular for exploration, though, scientists would actually build elevated walkways through the treetops, like sidewalks in the sky, so that they could stroll through the canopy and study the plants and insects that live in it. Nowadays these walkways are mostly for tourists who want to have their own rainforest canopy adventure without the risk of climbing ropes or hanging from balloons. Several tropical vacation spots offer treetop journeys on sturdily constructed wooden platforms with walkways that offer easy, permanent access to the canopy. You might not want to spend a weekend sweating in a canopy raft, but canopy walkways let you have your own rainforest canopy adventure in a fairly safe, controlled environment.
These rainforest walkway sites are usually a form of ecotourism, in which a portion of the funds charged for using the walkways goes toward fighting deforestation in the tropics and funding further research into rainforest ecology. Isn't it great when you can have an adventure that's also good for the planet?
Rainforest Canopy Surfing
If scientists can go rafting through the rainforest canopy, why can't tourists go surfing through it? Okay, that sounds kind of silly, but canopy surfing really exists and if you take a trip to the tropics you'll probably get a chance to do some surfing of your own. Canopy surfing is another form of ecotourism, with the funds paid by tourists often going to support ecological causes (though if you're really interested in helping the environment and not just in experiencing a thrill ride in the tree tops, you might want to ask the people who sell the canopy surfing experience just where the funds are going).
Canopy surfing is sort of a cross between bungee jumping and a roller coaster. It usually involves cables, sometimes called zip lines, strung between canopy platforms, with guides helping strap tourists into harnesses attached to these lines by pulleys and then accompanying them on a high-speed slide between platforms while they dangle dozens of feet above the rainforest floor. Often there are multiple rope lines leading from one platform to the next, giving the tourist a dizzying view of a large portion of the canopy -- and a breathtaking experience on top of it.
Those who have taken advantage of canopy surfing opportunities say that the experience is spectacular -- and a little scary. But environmentalists worry that turning the canopy into an amusement park ride may damage some of the fragile life forms that inhabit it. Still, if some of the money goes to rainforest research, the minimal damage may be worth it.
At Your Own Risk
If you like your adventure mixed with a little danger and some risk to life and limb -- well, the rainforest canopy has that too, even the carefully controlled parts of it put aside for tourists. For instance, on May 27, 2012, an American tourist and a guide were surfing a zip line at Mindo Ropes & Canopy in Ecuador when the line slackened and both riders fell 130 feet (39.6 meters) to the ground. The tourist was killed and the guide was seriously injured.
This was hardly the first time a fatal zip line accident had occurred. In March 2008, a 44-year-old tourist from Texas was riding a zip line in the Honduras rainforest canopy when it snapped and she fell to her death. (Once again, the guide riding with her survived the fall.) In May of 2004, a British woman was seriously injured in a fall from a zip line in Queensland, Australia.
These accidents aren't terribly common, but they're a reminder that not only is the rainforest canopy fraught with potential danger, but not all sites that offer canopy rides for thrill seekers are as carefully regulated and controlled as, say, Disneyland. If you're looking for some rainforest adventure, you shouldn't let these incidents frighten you unnecessarily, but don't blindly leap off a canopy platform onto a zip line thinking that nothing can possibly go wrong. Everything in life is risky, even driving your car to the nearest grocery store, but it's up to you to decide just how much risk you're willing to take and what experiences you're willing to take it for. It's a long fall from the rainforest canopy to the ground and a ride on a zip line through that canopy might well be the biggest thrill of your life. But there's always a tiny chance that it could be the end of it.
HowStuffWorks hikes El Caminito del Rey, a very dangerous hiking path in Spain that was closed to the public for 15 years after several deaths.
Author's Note: 5 Amazing Rainforest Canopy Adventures
I've written about the rainforests before in a book about endangered species. With 50 to 75 percent of all species on Earth living in the rainforests, it's an environment that needs to be both studied and protected, because it's being torn down at a frightening rate to make room for cattle ranching. I had never given much thought, however, to just how scientists manage to study what happens in the rainforest canopy, one of the least accessible environments on Earth for human beings -- and it had never occurred to me that tourists could visit the canopy for their own rainforest adventures.
Someday I'd love to walk along one of those canopy walkways. And if I'm feeling particularly brave I might try surfing one of those zip lines -- but I'll be sure to research the safety record of the company offering the ride before I do.
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