Search for the Giant Chinese Swamp Cypress: Meet the Tree Team

For this National Geographic-sponsored expedition to save the Critically Endangered Chinese swamp cypress (Glyptostrobus pensilis), we have brought together a dynamic group of people from the U.S., Scotland, and Laos. Let me introduce you to our team.

Photo courtesy of Gretchen Coffman.
Team Cypress. Back row, from left: Somphan Khanxaiyavong, Philip Thomas. Done Suvandy, David McGuire; Front row, from left: “Bee” Kittisack Phoutthavong, Dr. Gretchen Coffman, Ohouthone Xyavhongsa, Rob Timmins, Soukhatha Vanalath, Sisouphab Sichanthongthip, Robin Hunter (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Coffman).

We broke up into three groups to conduct surveys in promising watersheds of the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in the Annamite Mountain range in central Laos to locate previously undocumented populations of this beautiful, useful, and endangered tree.

The Reconnaissance Team

When we get to a new area, Rob Timmins, the man behind the binoculars, starts us out by going with Sisouphab from the local Watershed Management Protection Agency (WMPA), and two foresters, Veo and Phat, from the Lao central government Department of Forest Resource Management, to get more information from people living in the small, remote villages. These are our first scouts for new stands of cypress in the National Protected Area.

Photo credit: David McGuire
Rob Timmins scouts birds and other wildlife in a cypress stand. (Photo by David McGuire)
Sisouphab and Bee from Lao National Botanical Gardens
Sisouphab, a forester from the Watershed Management Protection Agency, and Bee, translator and botanist from Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden, cruise down the Nam Xot River. (Photo by Gretchen Coffman)

The people living in one of the villages we visited used to regularly cut down huge, old trees to make roof shingles.

Glyptostrobus pensilis shingles
Chinese swamp cypress shingles (Photo by David McGuire)

However, the villagers abruptly stopped harvesting cypress seven years ago when the NT2 WMPA began an educational campaign to spread awareness about how close the Chinese swamp cypress was getting to extinction. The NT2 WMPA has made a significant effort over the last several years to protect this important old-growth species and its habitat. Another educational campaign will be the next stage of our current project.

The Collection Team

Philip Thomas, IUCN conifer expert from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, seen below in his natural habitat, searches for cones and foliage with Dr. Vichith Lamxay, Professor of Botany at the National University of Laos, and two of Dr. Vichith’s students.

IUCN conifer expert, Philip Thomas, among cypress needles. Photo credit: David McGuire.
IUCN conifer expert, Philip Thomas, among cypress needles (Photo by David McGuire)
Dr. Vichith and Rob Timmins collect foliage for DNA samples.
Dr. Vichith, Philip Thomas, and assistants sort foliage samples for DNA analysis. (Photo by David McGuire)

Dr. Vichith and Thomas also hired two villagers to climb the cypress trees to help collect foliage and cones for DNA samples. These strong guys climbed dozens of trees, reaching heights of more than a hundred feet (30 meters). On a large, old cypress, the foliage only begins to appear about two thirds of the way up the trunk. These guys are fearless. I get a little dizzy just watching them. They ascend with bare feet, and no climbing gear! Amazing.

Climbing the giant cypress trees to collect foliage and cone samples.
Local villagers climb the giant Chinese swamp cypress trees with bare feet and no climbing gear, to collect foliage and cone samples. (Photo by “Bee” Kittisack Phoutthavong)

The climbers pull themselves up the trunk using the woody vines (lianes) that grow around the trees. The climbers work in pairs for safety. Our photographer, David McGuire, lent one of the climbers a GoPro so he could share a bit of the experience with you. Here’s a still shot from the climber’s point of view, looking up:

XXX took this still shot with the GoPro on his head as he was climbing into the tops of Chinese swamp cypress. Didn't get any point of view shots looking down, somehow . . .
Our tree climber from Ban Nahao village took this still shot with a GoPro on his head as he climbed into the tops of these large swamp cypress. He didn’t get any point-of-view shots looking down, somehow. (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Coffman)

The Ecology Team

I’m the lead on the Ecology Team. Couldn’t do it without my graduate student from the University of San Francisco, Robin Hunter, who is studying for her Masters of Science in Environmental Management, or without our crucial Lao collaborators from the National University of Laos, our government foresters, and villagers.

The Ecology Team: . Photo credit: David McGuire.
The Ecology Team from left: Bee, Ban Nahao villager, Sak, Robin, Gretchen, Phouthone, Aye. (Photo by David McGuire)

Robin is in charge of marking the location of each tree with a YUMA global positioning system (GPS).

Using a color chart to examine soil samples. Photo credit: David McGuire.
Using a Munsell color chart to examine soil samples. (Photo by David McGuire)

We have two Lao botany students help us take measurements of the soil moisture, color, and texture at the foot of each tree. Here we are training forest rangers and university students to collect soil data using basic field techniques. While working together collecting data, we’re also developing a really important partnership, one with great potential for the protection of the cypress and its habitat going forward.

Robin Hunter, Lao students and foresters measure diameter breast height (DBH).
Robin Hunter, Lao students and foresters measure the diameter breast height (DBH) of this giant. (Photo by David McGuire)

Here is Robin with a forest ranger and a few students helping us to measure the diameter breast height (DBH) of each tree. DBH is a basic growth measurement that scientists use to study the size of trees and understand their age. We stretch a German-made DBH tape around the girth (circumference) of the tree at a point about 1.4 meters above ground (that’s what they call “breast height” of a Western forester).

The scientific data we carefully record for our report can only tell part of the story. If you were standing next to us, you’d see how big the biggest tree we found was: it takes ten men, arms outstretched, to make a circle around its base.

Done, Somphan, and Sisouphab link arms, as Philip Thomas is about to join them, around the biggest Chinese swamp cypress tree we found. (Photo by “Bee” Kittisack Phoutthavong)

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Meet the Author
Dr. Coffman is an Assistant Professor in the Environmental Science Department at University of San Francisco. Dr. Coffman's current research focuses on scientific questions with high relevance to management problems, mainly related to riparian plant ecology, restoration, and invasive plant biology in river and wetland systems of mediterranean-type and tropical climates. She has on-going research projects along rivers in coastal southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley of California, and Central Laos and coastal Cambodia. She teaches courses at USF in applied ecology, environmental science, restoration ecology, wetland delineation, field botany, and ecosystem ecology in both the undergraduate Environmental Science Department and Environmental Management masters program. She received funding from National Geographic Conservation Trust to document the critically endangered swamp cypress of Laos in 2014-2015.