New Organisms Discovered in Massive Redwoods

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I grew up in the rural backwoods of Vermont, where, as children, my sister and I created complex imaginary worlds in the forest that surrounded our home. One of my favorite books was Roald Dahl’s “The Minpins,” which chronicles the lives of teeny-tiny people who populate the branches of unassuming trees.

In the book, Dahl wrote, “Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”

Following his advice, we’d build fairy kingdoms in the crevices of twisted roots, and return hours later to find the twigs broken, the moss overturned. The miniature palaces we had constructed appeared lived in, which we took as evidence that the fantastical creatures that colored the page existed whether or not we could see them.

As it turns out, we weren’t all that far off. Recent discoveries of microscopic organisms and ecosystems in giant redwoods have proven that–when it comes to what we thought we knew about tree dwellers–there is much still to be uncovered.

Redwoods constitute the iconic flora of Northern California. These massive trees are the largest on the planet, averaging between 150 and 280 feet tall, with the tallest a whopping 379 feet. That is approximately as tall as a football field is wide.

When Dr. Rikke Reese Naesborg, a lichenologist, and her husband Cameron Williams grew fascinated with these colossal natural wonders, they began to scale the trees in search of life. In doing so, they have chronicled the plants, mosses, lichens, and organisms that they encounter.

For their initial ascent into the trees, the climbers begin with a crossbow: shooting a blunt-tipped arrow that trails a fishing line in its path. Once the fishing line catches hold of sturdy branches, they can pull up parachute supplies and rope. Their safety depends upon the integrity and strength of the tree branches themselves.

Despite the risk factor, Naesborg tells BTRtoday, “We’re going to miss out on a huge proportion of what exists in the redwood forest if we do not climb the trees.”

Through this process, Naesborg and her crew have discovered multiple unique ecosystems that differ depending upon the altitude of the tree they inhabit. The lower portions of the tree are more protected, and therefore more humid, while higher branches receive greater exposure to sunlight and wind.

Given that disparate environments can exist simultaneously within one of these forest giants, the redwoods possess more ecological diversity than any other tree previously studied. In some cases, more than 100 discrete species were documented occupying a single tree. Furthermore, some of the tiny species found nestled away in these gargantuan woods were previously unknown to man.

“We have found a species that was new to science already, and I might find something else too!” Naesborg explains, “I am not yet done with my study.”

She recalls that she became interested in the trees when she first began dating her husband. It was a prerequisite, she jokes, for pursuing their relationship. Now the trees have become her life’s passion.

However, with California in the midst of its worst droughts in approximately 1,200 years, the project of maintaining and exploring the trees might be in jeopardy.

“It’s very likely that the southern part of the redwood range is going to eventually not have enough water. They’ll probably disappear because it’s going to get drier in the southern parts,” Naesborg explains. Although conclusive studies have not yet been conducted, the warmer, dryer weather will certainly be felt in the southern region, where the trees currently reside. “That’s definitely going to affect the redwoods,” she continues.

For Naesborg, the redwoods themselves embody possibility, adventure, and a deep exploration of the intricacies of our world. The respite and perspective they provide make her journeys worthwhile, despite the dangers inherent in the process. The magic is in losing oneself in the branches, becoming part and parcel of something that grows stronger as it grows outwards.

“It’s totally different being up in the trees,” she said. “It’s like you enter a different world, like you’re on a different planet,” she says.