Cliff Ecology

(This column was first published in the September 27, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    When I was young, I was deeply envious of explorers, people who got to visit new places where they discovered remarkable, never before identified animals and even more remarkable evidence of long extinct dinosaurs. Oh how I wished I could join those expeditions that I could only savor vicariously through reading: of William Gaylord Simpson to Patagonia, of Raymond Ditmars to the jungles of Africa and Central America, even of Roy Chapman Andrews to the deserts of Outer Mongolia.

    Today it seems that anyone can take trips like those -- anyone with the wherewithal that is. Guided tours will take you anywhere on earth -- not only to those exotic places that haunted me but to the North and South Poles and the peak of Mount Everest as well. It certainly seems as though real scientific exploration is finished.

    In contemporary jargon: Not. And not only are there possibilities for true exploration but one of the regions being newly explored today is literally right here. That region: the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment -- those same vertical rocks that line both sides of the Niagara Gorge below Niagara Falls.

    A research team led by Professor Douglas Larson of the University of Guelph in nearby Canada is studying those precipices, a task that requires not only a commitment to and deep understanding of the associated science but also rock climbing skills and not a little bravery. It is, for example, one thing to drill a tree core in a normal woodlot; it is quite something else to do so while hanging at the end of a thin nylon line. There is no safety net, only a pile of boulders a hundred feet straight down below your dangling feet.

    Consider what I think is their most striking finding: a long dead arborvitae still rooted to the cliff after its death 1200 years ago. And before that it had lived over 1550 years. This incredibly ancient tree first sprouted at about the time that Rome was founded in 753 B.C. and it died shortly after Charlemagne was born in 742 A.D. It was middle aged at the time of Christ and the Caesars and it had been dead for centuries when Leif Ericson and Christopher Columbus first visited this continent.

    More prosaic perhaps, but still of interest if only because it is so unexpected, the researchers also found that these seemingly bare vertical rocks support just as dense a population of trees as other mature forests, about 400 per acre. What makes the appearance of this forest so different is the small size of these stunted, bonsai-like white cedars and sugar maples. Cores from these trees have provided Larson's team evidence of summer temperature fluctuations since long before any European settlers arrived to keep such records.

    In well earned response to his groundbreaking work, Dr. Larson has been named the Buffalo Museum of Science's Distinguished Lecturer for 1999 and he will visit the city this week to present two public lectures. On Friday, October 1 at 7:30 p.m. he will offer "Life on the Rocks: The Discovery and Science of Ancient Cliff Forests." Then on Saturday, again at 7:30 p.m., his talk will be "Life in the Rocks: The Biodiversity and Ecology of an Invisible Habitat." Notice that in the second talk the preposition "in" replaces the "on" of the first. It will be about cryptoendolithic organisms and the secret world inside limestone and sandstone. (That jawbreaker, cryptoendolithic, breaks down into crypto -- hidden; endo -- inside; and lithic -- rock.)

    This visit will provide all of us and especially youngsters with a budding interest in science an opportunity to meet a truly modern explorer.-- Gerry Rising


Readers interested in obtaining more information about Professor Larson's team of researchers and their many exciting projects should visit the Cliff Ecology Research Group website.