The Last Tepui: Biodiversity On The Earth’s Sky Islands

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Of all the Earth Day shows unspooling on TV this week, Explorer: The Last Tepui from Disney+ is a must-see for fans of toads, biodiversity, and elite rock climbing. The film documents the exploration of the unique “islands in the sky” that dot the Amazon in South America, and it also provides an opportunity to review the importance of biodiversity on the clean tech field.

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The Last Tepui & The Technology Of Exploration

From a technology perspective, The Last Tepui presents a stark contrast with the exploration of other planets or, for that matter, the ocean depths, both of which require a “have environment, will travel” approach to equipment. What you see in The Last Tepui is people without helmets or special suits who are not enclosed in pods and spheres. They look like normal everyday people as they hack through virgin jungle and scale vertical rock walls.

Technology does play a role on The Last Tepui, but at heart the hunt for new species on the flat summit is a physical activity that can be terrifying at times, especially when sheer cliffs of 1,000 feet or so are involved.

CleanTechnica had a chance to get the inside scoop from one of the Last Tepui team members, the well known climber Alex Honnold. He noted that his old timey rock climbing friends tend to scoff at some of the some of the latest climbing gear. However, advanced materials and improvements in pack-able food do make life in camp more comfortable.

“Technological advances definitely aid exploration,” Honnold told CleanTechnica, while emphasizing that the Last Tepui excursion was primarily a human-powered one. He listed waterproof clothing, synthetic sleeping bags, and lighter climbing gear among the latest advantages.

Participating in The Last Tepui was an eye-opener for Honnold, who is usually focused on the features enable him to traverse a rock formation.

“The biggest impact was realizing how little we know about the biodiversity of the more remote regions of the earth,” he said. “All it takes is a 10-day walk into the middle of nowhere to find new species…it is humbling.”

The Toads Are Calling

Speaking of biodiversity, Honnold also observed that the excursion bore fruit over a relatively short period, even though only one expert biologist was on the team. That would be National Geographic Explorer Dr. Bruce Means, who is the co-founder, President, and Executive director of the nonprofit organization Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy.

As cited by the nature conservation video firm Pongo Media Productions, Dr. Means was called to the Tepuis by “the most beautiful sound in the world,” the voice of a small toad that could be the missing link that sets off a paradigm shift in the knowledge of species found on these nearly vertical, flat-topped mountains

Did they find the missing toad-link? Watch the show and find out this Friday, April 22.

Biodiversity & Biomimicry

Conservationists can advocate for preserving biodiversity from an ethical, moral, or aesthetic point of view. For people who are not particularly engaged with any of those attributes, conservationists can also deploy the argument from self-preservation. That should do the convincing, considering that the collapse of species in an ecosystem can ripple out to impact the global food supply and increase the risk of pandemics.

Biodiversity also has bottom line value in terms of discovering new medicines and other useful products, one good example being rubber. Then there’s biomimicry, in which humans attempt to replicate multi-million year evolutionary processes within the span of a few years. The field of photovoltaic technology provides some good examples in that area, especially regarding artificial photosynthesis.

Another example is the tongue of a frog, and that’s where things get interesting. Like Dr. Means’s elusive toad, frogs in general have presented scientists with a mystery wrapped in an enigma, namely, how they manage to whip their tongue out faster than the blink of an eye and pull it back with something tasty attached to it.

Deciphering the notoriously speedy, sticky, whiplash action of a frog’s tongue has tantalized researchers since at least the middle of the 19th century. Unraveling that mystery can achieve results in the areas of mechanical engineering and materials science, too, but until recent years researchers had little to show for their efforts.

That began to change in 2015, when researchers at Kiel University in Germany shot footage of a frog’s tongue in action at the white hot speed of 2,000 frames per second. For contrast, the standard for good quality commercial movie and television video is just 24 frames per second.

At 2,000 frames per second, the Kiel team was able to capture the movement of the tongue with pinpoint precision, resulting in a first-of-its-kind, detailed description of the mechanics. They determined that the adhesive aspect is an essential feature, describing the tongue as a complex “biological high-speed adhesive system.”

“We found that the tongue rolls over the target during attachment. However, during the pulling phase, the tongue retractor muscle acts perpendicular to the target surface and thus prevents peeling during tongue retraction,” they noted.

Biodiversity & Frog Mucus

The research team also noted the similarity between mucus fibrils that form between the tongue and the target, and the fibrils that occur in synthetic pressure-sensitive adhesives.

In 2018 a research team from the Oregon State College of Engineering picked up the theme, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Kiel, the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US. The US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation also chipped in to fund the study.

“The next generation of high-tech adhesives could take some design cues from the tongues of frogs,” the school enthused, remarking that the force of a frog’s tongue can exceed its own body weight, an achievement credited to their sticky mucus.

The Oregon State team tackled another first-of-its-kind challenge, which was to catalogue the chemical structure at the surface of the mucus, after a tongue strike.

As explained by Oregon State, mucus is characterized by linear polymeric chains formed by proteins called mucins. Their study showed that fibrils composed of multiple chains of mucins form twisted, yarn-like structures between the tongue of frogs and the surface of their target when the tongue retracts.

Pressure sensitive adhesives are part and parcel of daily life. They have an advantage over heat-activated adhesives because they don’t require thermal energy to create a bond, which could be why the US Department of Energy is interested in frog mucus. Perhaps the next steps will involve a comparative study of frog mucus, providing researchers with the structural building blocks to synthesize new adhesives.

Circling back around to biodiversity, the more species of frogs that are available for study, the better. That means researchers better act fast. The US Geological Survey is among the agencies tracking species decline among frogs and other amphibians, and they do not paint a pretty picture.

If you want to be part of the biodiversity solution, NWF has some guidance for property owners (spoiler alert: lawns are not part of the solution).

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: The hunt for biodiversity on Explorer: The Last Tepui, (credit: National Geographic/Ryan Valasek).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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