Magazine article USA TODAY

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Magazine article USA TODAY

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Article excerpt

Behind the dazzling variety of shapes and forms found in trees hides a remarkably similar architecture based on fundamental, shared principles, ecologists and evolutionary biologists have discovered. Researchers have found that, despite differences in appearance, trees across species share remarkably similar architecture and can tell scientists a lot about the entire forest.

The researchers' results, published in Ecology Letters, have important implications for models employed by scientists to assess how trees influence ecosystems across the globe. Studies like this enable scientists to refine models used to assess and predict functions that cannot be measured directly for an entire forest--for instance, how much carbon dioxide and oxygen the forest exchanges with the atmosphere and how much water trees lose through evaporation.

According to the authors, their study is the first empirical test of a theory ecologist Brian Enquist helped develop in 1998. That theory holds that a tree's branching structure--specifically, the width and length of its branches--predicts how much carbon and water a tree exchanges with the environment in relation to its overall size, independently of the species. …

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