Entomologist Maurice Leponce studies ant colonies in the canopy of the Papua New Guinean rainforest with special hot air balloons. Watch him on YouTube!
Our colleague, entomologist Maurice Leponce, studies arboreal ant colonies in a spectacular fashion. With hot air and helium balloons, he floats over the treetops of the tropical forest in Papua-New-Guinea, to observe them from above. Research is not the only thing he is after: Leponce’s project supports both capacity building and forest conservation. TV Channel France3 made a short documentary about his work.
Papua New Guinea: A last frontier for biologists
It is 6:45 am, and Maurice Leponce watches the sun rise above the misty treetops of the rainforest. He does not admire this impressive sight from the top of a mountain, or from a plain. No, he balances on a tree branch, about thirty meters up in the air. “The feeling is a bit unreal. I can stand on a branch like a bird!”
The rainforest of Papua New Guinea is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, but the area remains mostly unexplored at the moment. The dense vegetation makes one of “the last frontiers for biologists” extremely difficult to access. That is also the case for Maurice Leponce, who specialises in tropical biodiversity. He studies ant colonies in the rainforest. Several species have made the canopy their home. But how do you observe animals that hide tens of meters up in a tree, protected by impenetrable vegetation? Climbing the gigantic trees is not an option. So the only way is: from above!
Watching ants from the sky
To gain access to the canopy, which holds almost halve of the forest’s biodiversity, Leponce uses helium and hot air balloons. Every morning he takes off to gather insect and plant samples. “Being able to reach the tree canopy allows me to make observations that would otherwise be impossible. These are magical moments!”
Leponce uses the Cinébulle, a hot air balloon for two passengers with an electric engine, and the Canopy Bubble. That is a helium balloon for one. A rope of 2 kilometres creates a path across the most remarkable trees, between which the pilot of the Canopy Bubble can travel. With the help of the Bubble, Leponce can draw a map of the ant colonies, to get an overview of which ant species resides in which tree, how they interact together and with other insects.
More than scientific research
Maurice works together with research assistants called para-ecologists. They are talented naturalists from local communities, that are trained in research stations led by a Czech scientist, Vojtěch Novotny. Those stations are a source of income for the community, and inspire to protect the ecosystem. For young people, it is a chance to educate themselves in a sector that does not thrive at the expense of the rainforest, contrary to the deforestation and mining industries.
“Before, biologists were mainly focused on their research, and not on other aspects. That lead to a very depressing situations where you study a tropical forest and ten years later, it has disappeared!” Research that leads to the conservation of the habitat you study, that is the key to sustainability, according to Maurice Leponce.
Watch “In the Treetops of Papua New Guinea”, the short documetary created by Maurice Leponce himself, on YouTube. (with the support of Belspo, FNRS and the National Lottery)
‘Le scientifique de la jungle’ appeared on the travel show Faut pas rêver on France 3