Inventory of a forest in Auvergne, from ground to canopy

Since June 2008, an international team of researchers has been examining the Comté Forest, from the ground to the treetops, with the help of strange flying equipment. This is the fourth assignment of the Ibisca network (inventory of biodiversity from the ground to the canopy), but the first one of this kind in a temperate zone.

In June 2008, in Auvergne, there was strange flying equipment in the Comté forest, gathering pollen from treetops. An international team of researchers from the Ibisca mission (inventory of biodiversity from the ground to the canopy) have indeed decided to examine this 1,500 hectare forest, located only twenty five kilometres from Clermont-Ferrand (France).

To observe living creatures as far up as the treetop, these scientists from Australia, Brazil, Norway and elsewhere* are equipped with two aerostats: the “Canopy Bubble” and the “Canopy Glider”. The former is a helium balloon that slides on a rope from one treetop to another, which was developed by a team of researchers in 1984, during an expedition to Guyana. The system proved its worth and aroused the interest of the scientific community, as it permitted access to species at the summits of forests and not just to those on the ground. And yet diversity is just as large (if not larger) at the top than at the bottom.

In the Comté forest, researchers also use the ‘Arboglisseur’ (Canopy Glider), the latest addition to aircrafts of this type, which can carry two researchers and material, as well as the pilot. “As long as the meteorological conditions are favourable”, adds Bruno Corbara, director of the scientific mission. 

This group of about thirty Ibisca biologists has chosen to carefully examine the flora and fauna in this region of France, first and foremost because no European forest has ever undergone such a study. “This is the first time that it has been done on this scale in a temperate zone,” Bruno Corbara points out. “Ibisca has already carried out three expeditions in tropical forests: Panama in 2003, Australia and Vanuatu in 2006. Using the same methods, this time it is about doing an inventory as precise as possible on the biodiversity of this forest, considered as an ordinary forest. Even though the diversity here would not be as large as in a tropical zone, it is immeasurably larger than the public knows.

The Massif of Auvergne is among one of the most diversified and the richest in flora, the Comté forest prides itself, among others, on its Martagon lilies, magnificent carnations, red Cephalanthera (a very rare orchid) and other knobby geraniums. It is also a refuge for a large wild fauna (roe deer and wild boar), birds such as the bondrée apivore (a bird of prey) or the royal Milan (a bird of prey which has been constantly dropping in number over the last fifteen years) and batrachians like the yellow bellied ringer which is an endangered species in Europe. Although it cannot be called a “natural forest” as all European forests are the result of a long history of human activity, it offers a great biodiversity, partly due to the complex geology of the ground and a set of volcanic rock peaks, whose sides are quite exposed to the sun and shelter varied animal and vegetal species.

In order to carry out field research, the researchers defined five types of different environments beforehand: moist ravine forest (north-exposed), south-exposed ravine forest; oak-hornbeam groves; riparian oak-hornbeam grove (adjacent to small rivers); resinous tree plantations (silver fir and Douglas).  For each of these plots they marked a boundary of four experimental plots of 20 meters by 20, samples where they concentrate their explorations.  This is painstaking work, carried out with the help of the Alcide d’Orbigny Natural History Society for which two busy periods have been planned for the month of June in 2008 and 2009, “when biodiversity can be observed more easily”, Bruno Corbara emphasizes.

Mammals, birds, insects, microscopic organisms, plants, moss, a multitude of lichen…: everything is of interest to the researchers who examine bark, bedding, undergrowth and branches to track every living creature, that are indexed and analyzed by specialists. This forest has still not revealed all its secrets. How do we know this? While the number of living creatures on this planet is estimated to be between 10 and 50 million, only 1.8 million species are indexed today.

Apart from the exhaustive inventory, the Ibisca biologists aim at favouring the ecological dimension, that is to say learning about the interaction between the species and their environment. “Here, man’s presence has brought about a large heterogeneity of the environment, relatively natural,” explains Bruno Corbara. “Paradoxically, man’s interference can favour biodiversity.” Even though the aim is not to reveal that new species exist, research sometimes has some surprises in store, such as the discovery of a new family of flies, the atelestidae, which had never been indexed before in France.

Eventually, the results will also make up a database for the scientific community, in order to track the evolution of this forest and moreover the impact that climate change may have. The first synthesis of the research is planned for the end of 2010.

* Canada, Australia, Brazil, Panama, Suisse, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Norway, France, Colombia.


Key points

  • The canopy is the part of the forest that is found at the tops of tall trees.
  • Today “only” 1.8 million species are indexed and described out of the 10 to 50 million species of animals and vegetables that exist (a very wide bracket, reflecting our ignorance!)  
  • The red list of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) constitutes the most comprehensive world list of the global conservation state of animal and vegetal species.
  • According the red list of the IUCN, 12% of species of birds, 23% of mammals, 32% of amphibians, 42% of turtles and a quarter of conifer species are in danger of worldwide extinction.

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