Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. EXPLORE, DREAM, DISCOVER. — Mark Twain
It is often assumed that wheelchair dependency hinders a career in field biology; however, scientists at New College of Florida are part of a national research team proving otherwise. With federal funds from the National Science Foundation, mobility-limited college students are tackling unanswered questions about what lives in the tops of temperate forest trees, research that is preparing them for careers as forest ecologists or field entomologists.
The project’s team leaders are three diverse scientists who hope to inspire underserved students to seek careers in field biology.
One leader of this research team, Dr. Elzie McCord of New College, is an expert in insect pests and other small creatures that co-inhabit the forest foliage with water bears. As a newly trained arbornaut (explorer of forest canopies), McCord recently climbed into the treetops to expand his research program. The second team leader, Dr. William Miller of Baker University, Kansas, is one of the world’s few scientists who can identify water bears. And the third team scientist ( your dedicated columnist!) tackles the canopy ecology questions. In field biology, we can accomplish more as a team than by working individually.
By studying water bears in canopies, our students are part of cutting-edge scientific discovery using new methods to better understand the world around us.
To access the treetops, students do not need to ambulate along a walking trail, but simply sit in a harness and propel themselves upward out of their wheelchairs, using hardware developed by mountaineers called single rope techniques. Once airborne, our arbornaut team samples tardigrades, commonly called water bears or moss piglets.
Although these microscopic animals were the first creatures to survive in outer space, back on Earth they are little known, little studied, and easy to find. Water bears prefer to live in water droplets or other moist places such as moss or leaf surfaces, but they can survive extreme climatic conditions by reverting to a resting phase called cryptobiosis.
On Animal Planet, they earned distinction as the world’s most extremophile critters! Water bears can survive the vacuums of outer space, pressure six times greater than the deepest ocean trenches, and temperatures higher than boiling water or just above absolute zero. They can go without food or water for more than 100 years.
In their summer research projects, undergraduates are asking questions about water bears. Do more live in the top versus the bottom of a tree? Are there one species or 100? Are they common? Do they prefer leaf surfaces, lichen, moss or bark habitat? Or do they live on more savory surfaces such as the spinach and lettuce in your garden?
This research program not only offers unique experiences for mobility-limited students, but it also provides an opportunity to discover new species and explore an unstudied region of the planet.
One participant, Rebecca, lost the use of her legs after a car accident in childhood. When asked about her first canopy climb as part of this summer research experience, she said, “Learning to climb has been such an empowering and rewarding experience. It has shown me that I am far more capable than I ever gave myself credit for, and has only reinforced my endless awe and deep appreciation of nature.”
Want to learn more about water bears? Our expert research team of arbornauts will host a water bear scavenger hunt at the International Tree-Climbing Jamboree in Atlanta Oct. 11-13 (www.treeclimbing.com/rendezvous). All welcome, including mobility-limited citizens!
Patty Jenkins, executive director of Tree Climbing International, who became mobility-limited through polio in her youth, will host this conference, which includes recreational climbing workshops and scientific talks, plus a scavenger hunt for new species of water bears.
Not surprisingly, scientists will go to great lengths (and heights!) for new discoveries.
Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.
Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.