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Scientist's view of the rain forest is up in the air

Seventy-five feet off the forest floor, amid the canopies of flame and gumbo limbo trees, Meg Lowman stands on a wood platform and waves her net.

It's hot. Ants that bite are crawling everywhere, maybe along with other nasties, like scorpions.

But Lowman doesn't think much about that. On a typical day, she'll be out at dawn and dusk to collect hundreds of flying insects amid the leafy bromeliads and bright orchids. She wears a hardhat and a safety line in case she slips off the small treehouselike structure.

On another day, she might reach the forest crown by donning a climbing harness to dangle from a rope. She has ridden a thin raft strung beneath a hot-air balloon 300 feet off the ground. She even has been hoisted aloft in the bucket of a crane.

This isn't some lost scene from Tarzan or Swiss Family Robinson. Lowman, 40, is one of the world's leading researchers on tropical rain forests. She is a pioneer in a new branch of study focusing on the rich diversity of species in the treetops.

She and her colleagues believe the secrets of one the planet's most precious ecosystems can't be unlocked by poking around at the ground level, where researchers traditionally had focused.

Lowman studies tree-eating insects, and the canopies are loaded with them, perhaps 50-million species. Both the insects and rare plants may contain undiscovered chemicals that could be miracle medicines. So scientists have to head skyward.

There is perhaps a humbling perspective offered there. "It's estimated that 95 percent of the organisms on the earth view life from 75 feet downwards, while humans are one of the few that view life from about five feet high upwards," Lowman said in a recent interview.

Her studies have led her to Australia, where she lived for 12 years; to Cameroon in Africa in 1991; and now, to the post of director of research for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

Students from the bay area will get to see her in live action on television during an unusual educational program beginning Monday. She'll lead a young research team to Belize, in Central America, to study the forest canopy there, while a television crew with her sends the sights and sounds back to audiences at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

It's all part of the Jason Project, sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

Lowman hopes her research will help show how rain forests work before they're ruined by burning and clearing to create farmland. Rain forests are believed to generate much of the world's oxygen and affect weather and climate patterns.

Ants and beetles play a key role in keeping forests healthy _ to a point. They pollinate trees and their voracious eating of leaves accelerates decomposition.

Lowman studies the delicate, complex relationships between insects and plants partly to better understand how much long-term damage logging could cause. She also wants to get a better estimate of the number of species there.

It's complicated work. But with the treehouses, ropes and balloons, Lowman is the first to tell you it's also fun, occasionally wacky and appeals to the childlike instincts in all of us.

Lowman speaks about her studies with the buoyant enthusiasm of a committed teacher; she has taught both grade-school children and college students.

The inevitable question: Is she afraid of heights?

"No, but I have a healthy respect for them," she says. She sometimes gets a little dizzy, or her rope can slip a little on mossy bark.

"That's a quick way to get some gray hairs. Accidents only happen when you're not thinking about what you're doing. To be up in a tree can be very safe if it's done properly."

A British researcher fell to his death from a tree in Venezuela in 1984. Lowman once fell 15 feet out of a tree in Australia, but wasn't injured. If anything, a greater hazard was the 100 or more venomous snakes littering the ground below. "It was kind of a relief to get up on a rope."

Fortunately, the snakes weren't tree-dwellers. Koalas were about, though, and despite their cute image, they have sharp claws and can get ornery. But they were usually zonked out on a narcoticlike substance in the eucalyptus leaves they love to munch.

Lowman says she isn't a born daredevil; her research just gradually and literally evolved upward. A native of Elmira, N.Y., she studied for a master's degree in botany at a university in Scotland under the tutelage of one of the world's foremost ecologists, Peter Ashton.

With his encouragement, Lowman decided the best way to study for a doctorate would be to live and work in the tropics. She headed for Australia because it was English-speaking and has lush rain forests along the northeastern coast.

Collecting leaf samples turned out not to be so easy. She learned to use a slingshot to nick leaves off their branches. But at the same time, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution, Terry Erwin, was experimenting with ways to gather insects in Central America.

Erwin used a biodegradable insecticide to knock bugs into nets and tarps for collection and classification. Those findings led him to extrapolate that there might be 30-million species of life in the world.

"That was about 30 times higher than we had thought. Suddenly the canopy becomes this black box in science where very few people have looked, but it seems that maybe everything is happening up there. We have all these dynamic processes going on.

"I thought of every other conceivable way to get this information without climbing up there. I thought of training a monkey. . . . But I grew to love it. It's been one of the highlights of my life."

She hooked up with a cave-exploring club whose bemused members taught her rock-climbing techniques. She would use the slingshot to fire weights attached to fishing line over the branches of trees; that way a rope could be hauled up and over.

Once, when she was re-entering the country, Australian custom agents temporarily confiscated the slingshot as an illegal weapon. She explained its use, and they relented on condition she get a license for it. "I still wonder if they ever believed me," she laughs.

Tree platforms and rafts were developed to sample more trees with less physical effort. Lowman started on a 600-foot-long walkway in Australia built as a tourist attraction. She and a partner have gone on to build platforms for colleges in Massachusetts and Ohio (canopy research is also done in northern, temperate forests.)

Typically, the platforms have a 15-foot-wide walkway and cables for railings; a series of cables is attached to telephone poles or bolts drilled in trees. Students frequently work with her, but everyone must wear helmets and safety lines. Her two sons, Edward, 8, and James, 6, sometimes join her.

A treehouse that has been built in Belize for the Jason Project may be the most ambitious in the world to date, with four platforms connected by three bridges and a separate "eagle's nest" soaring 150 feet above the ground.

Lowman has also ridden in two types of rafts towed by balloons. "We would fly up and over trees to get to the next ones, so you couldn't get scared. It was fascinating to look down, it was like a fantasy to be sailing along like that."

At Selby since July 1992, Lowman is pursuing a combination of community education and research abroad and locally.

Until now, the canopies of Florida's subtropical tree species have been little studied. Lowman is working in the Myakka River State Park, where she also hopes to build platforms.

On Longboat Key, she's examining the rapid regeneration of bromeliads that were knocked out of trees by last March's no-name storm.

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