May 16 is Love a Tree Day. While this may invoke images of people hugging trees, there are many other ways to show your love.
Though they may not be intentionally celebrating Love a Tree Day, many scientists show their committment by devoting their lives to studying trees. Two such scientists are Robin Foster and Stephen Hubbell. In 1979, the two ecologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa respectively, approached Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Director Ira Rubinoff with a long-term plan for monitoring tropical forest dynamics. A year later, they began marking the boundaries of a fifty-hectare plot on Barro Colorado Island, a STRI research site in the Panama Canal.
The plan? To map, measure, and identify every tree more than one cm in diameter– not just once, but every five years.
It was an ambitious undertaking. The first census was completed in 1982 after collecting data from approximately 240,000 trees and shrubs representing 303 species. Maps were hand-drawn, measurements were taken twice, and the data was recorded on paper and later entered on punch cards. Dozens of scientists and students worked on the project every day over the course of months.
This census provided researchers with the first "big picture" of the forest, allowing them to better understand the size and distribution of various species of trees. This was the first time that this type of census had been done on such a large scale anywhere in the world. Subsequent censuses allowed for the comparison of data over time, providing opportunities to study the dynamics of the forest. When combined with weather and other data, causes and effects could be studied as well.
By 1990, several similar plots had been established throughout the tropical world and the Center for Tropical Forest Science, administered by STRI, was created to manage a collaborative network of research sites.
ForestGEO, as the network is now called, currently consists of sixty-seven census plots in twenty-seven countries. The new name reflects the expansion of the network to include temperate forests as well as tropical. Each site follows the same protocols and supports a variety of additional research and monitoring programs. Altogether, the network is responsible for monitoring six million individual trees (12,000 different species).
The legions of dedicated individuals who make this all possible definitely love their trees.
- Conservation of Endangered Species Interviews, 1990, Record Unit 9553, Smithsonian Institution Archives