A major new study will explore the impact of the changes that humans are making to the ecosystems of tropical forests. 

Despite wide spread logging, deforestation and agricultural development, the effects of these land use changes are poorly understood. Now the ramifications of these activities are to be examined by an international team of scientists which has been awarded a £4.6M grant by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). 

Researchers from Lancaster Environment Centre and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) are part of the consortium studying tropical forests in Southeast Asia, where forest clearing and land conversion are leading to habitat loss and species extinctions at a rate unprecedented in Earth’s history.

The Lancaster and CEH research team, led by Professor Nick Ostle with Dr Niall McNamara and Dr Rob Griffiths, will be examining how the loss of forest affects plant and soil microbial diversity and ecology.

The results of the four-year study should be of interest to policymakers, resource managers, climate change researchers, the oil palm industry, the carbon trading sector, tropical scientists and the conservation sector globally.

Changing the whole ecosystem

“We still have a poor understanding of how humans are affecting not only charismatic, well-known species like the Asian elephant, hornbills and orang utans, but a whole host of other animals, plants and microbes that the public is often less aware of”, said Dr Yit Arn Teh, principal investigator and senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen.

“Some of these less publicly visible organisms – like plants, insects and soil microbes – are in fact critical for sustaining living ecosystems because they form the basis of the food web and support communities of higher organisms like birds, primates, elephants and other vertebrates.”

“Plants, insects and soil microbes are also responsible for ecological processes like photosynthesis, decomposition and nutrient cycling which, in turn, are globally important, because they determine whether tropical landscapes release or absorb greenhouse gases with the atmosphere.” 

Lancaster’s contribution

Professor Nick Ostle, who recently joined Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “The Tropics are under growing pressure to provide food and energy for growing populations.  This study will enable us to improve our understanding of the relationship between land-use change, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in tropical forest ecosystems.”

The NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, where Nick worked until recently, is also contributing to the study.

“At Lancaster we will be contributing fundamental biogeochemical and ecological science to fill knowledge gaps about plant-soil interactions. The results of the study will be used to develop better and more sustainable, environmentally friendly land-use change and management options,” Nick said.

The Biodiversity And Land-use Impacts on Tropical Ecosystem Function consortium (BALI) also includes the Universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Oxford, York and the Natural History Museum in London as well as a host of international partner organisations from Malaysia, Japan, Brazil and the USA.