Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

From Myakka to Taiwan

Sometimes I spend all day trying to count the leaves on a single tree. To do this I have to climb branch by branch and write down the numbers in a little book. So I suppose, from their point of view, it’s reasonable that my friends say: What foolishness! She’s got her head in the clouds again.

But it’s not. Of course I have to give up, but by then I’m half-crazy with the wonder of it — the abundance of the leaves, the quietness of the branches, the hopelessness of my effort. And I am in that delicious and important place, roaring with laughter, full of earth-praise. — Mary Oliver, poet

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegIn 2009, two Taiwanese national park employees arrived at my doorstep in Sarasota, determined to learn everything about the canopy walkway built in nearby Myakka River State Park. This unique treetop walk has not only inspired research discoveries, but has also doubled (even tripled) visitors to the park. (And this was during a decade when many American state parks suffered declining visitorship.) The dream of my international visitors was to build one in Taiwan, and uncover the mysteries of biodiversity in their native treetops.

Despite the sultry humidity of a blazing hot June day, we traipsed around the Florida walkway measuring and photographing every bolt and cable, and discussed the nuances of how the walkway was constructed and operated.

Some five years later, Chiu-Fang Lee, the director of Taiwan’s Shei-Pa National Park, invited me to the grand opening of their canopy walkway, constructed on schedule and under budget! Based on the design of our very own America’s first public canopy walkway, Shei-Pa National Park’s walkway officially opened on April 15, and cost approximately $24,000 U.S.

The country already has a tourist skywalk, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. But there was no site for research and eco-tourism combined. Two young Taiwanese scientists, Yung-Hsiang Lan and Kuo-Ming Fu, were the catalysts for this new research venture; and their scientific careers are now launched in the treetops of Taiwan. One thrilling innovation to our American canopy design was the addition of a small generator to literally propel up a rope and into the uppermost bridge of the Shei-Pa canopy, truly a great vertical ride!

Not on your bucket list for must-visit travel destinations? Formerly called Formosa, Taiwan is an island located 160 kilometers off the coast of mainland China, almost the same size as Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, and home to 23 million people. Taiwan has an extensive national park system that protects the country’s ecologically significant regions, provides recreational opportunities, and stimulates economic growth through tourism.

Despite its relatively small size as an island, Taiwan has over 200 mountain peaks above 9,000 feet, so it actually boasts over triple the land surface than if it were flat. Shei-Pa National Park embraces approximately 150,000 acres of high mountain landscapes in the remote interior of Taiwan. The country is increasingly popular for hikers, bird watchers, and nature lovers.

Why canopy research and why Taiwan? Taiwan prides itself on extraordinary conservation. Expansive tracts of primary forest have been carefully conserved for future generations, and their biodiversity includes such amazing creatures as Formosan landlocked salmon, Formosan black bears, and over 100 species of native butterflies. Over 1,000 species of plants dominate their montane forests, including enormous canopies of Yushan juniper, Taiwan red cypress, and Chinese hemlock.

Whereas Americans cut down more than 95 percent of our primary (or original) forests, Taiwan has retained enormous swathes of original, old-growth trees. One of the country’s six major national parks, Shei-Pa is a wonderland of unique biodiversity. This means that forest scientists can determine what lives in the original forest canopies, not just the regrowth; such discovery may shed light on the true nature of healthy forests.

Also of great scientific importance, Taiwan’s isolation as an island has resulted in many endemic species (translation: species native only to a single place). If you are fortunate to visit Taiwan, you might see the Formosan rock monkey, the Taiwan wild boar, Mikado pheasant, or the Formosan sambar — all unique to this island nation.

Perhaps the most incredible creature is the Formosan landlocked salmon, which has adapted to living entirely in fresh-water lakes and streams without the conventional migration to the ocean and back. Understanding how fish adapt to such significant changes in their movements may provide critical knowledge in dealing with the future of fisheries that are currently threatened by ocean acidification or other environmental degradation.

If you can’t swing a trip to Taiwan this year, perhaps an afternoon on the canopy walkway in Myakka River State Park will provide a sense of appreciation for forests, both locally and globally — and how special to recognize that our country’s first public treetop walkway is the inspiration for other parks around the world.

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.