Abstract: I shall address the prospects for a general comparative science of biological canopies. After describing the emergence of forest canopy biology as a discipline, and the challenges of working in tree crowns, I argue that ecologists working in the treetops have overlooked different communities of spatially fixed organisms that may have properties usefully compared to or contrasted with forest canopies. I argue that the canopy can be defined in terms of the parts of any community of sessile organisms that emerge from a substratum, any structural products derived from them included. In mainstream ecology, the organisms of a community are typically studied in two dimensions, or as isolated points on the earth. While canopy biology encompasses all aspects of the study of the portion of a community that projects into a medium, the discipline can in large part be distinguished as the science of treating plants (or other sessile hosts) as three dimensional. Prioritizing a search for general principles should be a primary goal of comparative canopy biology given that the microhabitats generated by stratification and other complex distribution patterns within communities are critical to sustaining global biodiversity. Periphyton and biofilms in particular have been untapped in their potential as model systems for studying assembly rules for the physical structure and dynamics of canopies.
Read Comparative Canopy Biology and the Structure of Ecosystems from Moffett’s book, Treetops at Risk (Springer, 2013).