Climbing the big ones 

Scientist discusses his adventures and discoveries in the high canopies of some of Canada’s oldest forest

WHAT: The Whistler Naturalists present Dr. Neville Winchester

WHERE: Millennium Place

WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m.

There is climbing trees and then there is summiting trees. When the flora in question is over 60 metres tall, then you’re going to have to rely on various mountaineering and big wall rock climbing techniques to get to the highest branches.

Although he is not quite comfortable with heights just yet, Dr. Neville Winchester says his experiences climbing and conducting research in the rainforest canopy of the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island and elsewhere have been rewarding. Climbing trees, and sometimes staying in the canopies for periods of up to four days, has led to a greater understanding and appreciation of the forests, as well as the discovery of hundreds of new species.

"It’s a completely different world up there, it’s just spectacular," said Dr. Winchester, who will be presenting a slide show of his work on Feb. 27 as part of the Whistler Naturalists Speaker Series.

"You’re so high above the ground, but it’s amazing what you can find up there. There are tree branches that are over a metre wide, and there are these huge soil deposits at the tops of trees where all kinds of things are growing. Then you move over to another valley, climb a tree, and discover completely different species.

"Back in 1917, Dr. William Beebe said that these canopies are the last unexplored biotic frontier, and I agree with that assessment. The problem is that there are not too many of these old forests left in the world."

His doctoral work in the Carmanah Valley in 1993 was instrumental in the conservation movement’s bid to have the area protected as a provincial park.

He has also conducted research in the old growth forests in neighbouring Wallbran Valley, and in the Elaho Valley outside of Squamish. Both areas are coincidentally the focus of conservation campaigns.

As well as conducting research along the west coast of British Columbia, Dr. Winchester has studied rainforest canopies in French Guyana, Gabon, Malaysia, Thailand and, most recently, Costa Rica. His work has yielded thousands of new species, including plants, fungi and insects.

In addition, he discovered that the canopies also provide a unique habitat for larger species, including rare and endangered species.

In B.C., the Marbled Murrelet and the spotted owl are recognized as species that are at risk, and as a result they have become a key part of conservation campaigns to protect old growth forests.

"The Marbeled Murrelets are these little feathered footballs you see come whizzing in from the ocean to their nests. They don’t like to be disturbed much. When the old trees disappear, so do they," said Winchester.

The spotted owls rely on prey that is common to old growth forests, and anything that interrupts the food chain, "like logging," will drive them away.

In his presentation to the Whistler Naturalists, Winchester says he will discuss the techniques that scientists use to climb these huge trees to study canopies, and how research is conducted at 60 metres.

He will also share some of his adventures around the world and his discoveries there, as well as his thoughts on why it is important to preserve old growth.

The presentation will include a slide show of some of the pictures he has taken while perched among some of the oldest and largest trees in the world.

Winchester is currently an adjunct assistant professor (research entomologist) and staff member in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Victoria. His areas of interest include ancient rainforest ecology and conservation biology.

He is currently on the board of directors for the International Canopy Network and is a project manager and principal investigator for New World Forests for the Global Canopy Project. In addition, he is on the scientific committee for the Biological Survey of Canada.

He served as the president of the Entomological Society of British Columbia, and is a member of the Entomological Society of Canada and the Society for Conservation Biology. He really knows his bugs.

Winchester’s work has been featured in several films and television programs, including the Nature of Things, and he has contributed his work to National Geographic Magazine, Discover magazine, Canadian Wildlife, and several books.

Winchester is also recognized as a dynamic speaker, addressing a wide range of audiences including international scientists, environmental organizations, government agencies, naturalist clubs and elementary school groups.

In Whistler, his presentation is called The Last Unexplored Biotic Frontier: Science in the High Canopy of Ancient Rainforests.

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