Carnegie scientists use airborne observatory to map the chemistry of the Amazon

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The maps represent the first time that such a large number of chemicals have been mapped and measured in any forest on the planet(Credit: Carnegie Institute of Science)

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Researchers have used data collected by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) to uncover chemical variation in plant life across the lowland Peruvian Amazon. Quite apart from giving rise to some of the most stunning scientific imagery we've seen of the region, the study provides key information for understanding the rainforest, and assessing our future impact on it.

The Amazon rainforest stretches from the foothills of the Andes all the way to the Atlantic coast, and contains thousands of tree and plant species. Each of these different species produce varying sets of chemicals that aid them in their goals of discouraging herbivores, attracting pollination and capturing precious sunlight.

The research team looked to this variation in plant chemical activity in an effort to better understand how the large-scale rainforest ecosystem functions, using the CAO to create the first ever high-resolution maps of the forest's canopy chemistry. A combination of instruments were used to capture the data, including a laser scanner and a high-fidelity imaging spectrometer.

The Amazon's Peruvian lowlands play host to a mosaic of hydrological and geologic variation, leading to plants adopting different chemical functions to take advantage of the available resources in any one given spot.

During the study, four large areas of the forest landscape and two Amazonian river systems were mapped, with the results representing the first time that such a large number of chemicals have been mapped and measured in any forest on the planet. The maps reveal notable changes in the makeup of the canopies along the paths of the rivers, and also highlight the importance of elevation to the species living in any one spot.

Overall, the study provides an unprecedented insight into diversity and geographical patterning in one of the most fascinating and important regions on Earth, helping scientists better understand its evolution and future.

"Looking at the lowland Amazon with this kind of detail, you can see back in time, from the way the topography was shaped millions of years ago, which still affects soils and mineral availability today, to the way that different species evolved to take advantage of this great variety of subtly changing conditions," says Carnegie's Greg Asner. "And we can peer into the future and see how quickly human activity is changing the kaleidoscope of diversity that has been uniquely shaped over millions of years."

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