Mapping rainforest chemistry from the air reveals 36 types of forest | Science News

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Mapping rainforest chemistry from the air reveals 36 types of forest

Chemical signatures of the Peruvian tree canopy reveal previously unrecognized biodiversity

11:30am, February 14, 2017
images of Peruvian tropical forest

COMPLEX CANOPIES  A single hectare of Peruvian tropical forest is shown in natural color (left) and in colors that correspond to as many as 23 different chemicals. The images, taken from a plane, reveal a surprising level of complexity within the forest.

To some forest creatures, a tree is a home. To scientists, it’s a beacon. A new way of mapping forests from the air by measuring chemical signatures of the tree canopy is revealing previously unrecognized biodiversity.

The swath of tropical forest covering the Peruvian Andes Mountains and the Amazon basin is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. But it’s such a wild and remote region that variation within the forest is hard to spot.

“If you look in Google Earth, it just looks like a big green blanket,” says study coauthor Greg Asner, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif.  

Up close, it’s a different story. Each tree species has a distinctive set of chemical traits, such as levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the leaves. Collectively, those characteristics can reveal a lot about the makeup of the forest.

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