When members of the tree canopy biodiversity survey team headed up a tree in Rock Creek Park, they got more than they bargained for: They couldn’t identify the tree. It looked like a white oak, but its bark was very different.
“We picked this tree to ascend because it’s unique,” said Joe Ely of the University of Central Missouri. “The bark is very odd—it’s shaggy and flaking off.”
Looking for an ID, Ely and his team tried technology—an instant plant identification system developed by the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland, and Columbia University. They came up empty there, too.
The verdict came after consulting colleagues and other scientists: The tree was a white oak, after all, just one with very unusual bark.
“We’re not stumped very often,” Ely said. “But it happens.”
Ely and the rest of the canopy team ascend trees by using a slingshot to shoot a climbing line up into the trees. Then they pull themselves up with climbing ropes. As they ascend—sometimes as high as 110 or 120 feet—the researchers collect bark samples, one every ten feet. Then they count the species they find: lichens, mosses and liverworts, fungi, and slime mold.
The tree canopy team will continue their work in Rock Creek Park during the day Friday and Saturday.
Species Count: 14
Photograph of a tree canopy biodiversity survey team member by Mark Christmas/NGS