Tropical rainforests are more than collections of colorful foliage and trees. They are living ecological laboratories that are vital to the planet but nonetheless endangered. The world of rainforests and how we can preserve them is the focus of a new program at the California Academy of Sciences, “3D Earth: Rainforests”.
Part amazing film, part live lecture, the program uses images and data to teach rainforest ecology and persuade the viewer to take up the cause of preservation. It’s apparent from the very beginning when the audience dons 3D glasses to watch a column of leafcutter ants carry leaves back to their nest for underground cultivation.
This species of ant has been around for 60 million years. The insects act as minute farmers, growing algae in their nest, aerating the soil in an area roughly the size of a football field and working as one to form what researcher Brian Fisher calls a “superorganism.”
Fisher is the academy’s resident ant expert and travels to the island of Madagascar to observe ant behavior. He is keenly aware of the interconnections between species that is a key to rainforest survival.
“Rainforests are more than a collections of species,” he said in the film, “Everything works together as part of the powerful system that is critical to earth and all of us.”
Meg Lowman concurs. Over the past 40 years, she has studied the jungle canopy, the world of treetops that is home to hundreds of animals and insects. The life of a sloth is a good example of how rainforest animals are inadvertently good jungle stewards. Algae and fungi cling to their coarse fur, which provides food for moths and other insects. The fur turns a greenish hue which helps camouflage the animal from hungry predators. The sloth’s dung drops to the forest floor, providing nutrients for plant growth.
The same can be said for macaws, the wildly colorful parrots which also inhabit the canopy. They eat fruits and nuts from the trees and drop portions of their dinner onto the dirt below where the seeds germinate into the next generation of plants, according to Lowman.
Even insects have their role. Katydids dine on leaves at the top of the forest canopy which prunes the trees and helps to regenerate growth. The most digestible leaves are found at the top, according to Lowman.
“The canopy can be thought of as a salad bar in the sky,” she said.
A jungle itself is vital to the very air we breathe. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and 40 percent of the world’s oxygen comes from rainforests.
But the destruction of the jungle becomes clear as the live presenter calls up color maps of rainforests as seen from space. Madagascar where deforestation has taken place for years, is a dark brown, while Costa Rica, which has strict rules on jungle exploitation for timber, is a bright healthy green.
Brazil, which has lost much of its rainforest to farming and ranching has reduced forest loss by 75 percent in recent years, said California Academy of Sciences Executive Director Jon Foley. The public can help by becoming educated and buying rainforest-friendly products like shade grown coffee.
“The more we learn about these incredible forests, the more we learn how important they are,” he said.
“3D: Rainforests” is showing daily in the Forum Theater on the academy’s second floor. Visitors can also experience a living rainforest in the “Rainforests of the World“exhibit nearby.