29 April 2014 15:24

Human impact in two of the world’s most diverse habitats could be much greater than previously thought.

An international team of researchers, led by Lancaster University in the UK and the State University of Campinas in Brazil, has embarked on a £3.6 million research project in Brazil to predict how tropical forests will look in the coming decades.

Previous research has either focused on primary forests, or the devastating effects of deforestation driven by large-scale forest conversion into cattle ranches and crops.

But this new research will turn its attention to degraded and recovering forests – areas of forest that are growing back after clear-felling, or which have been damaged by human activities (such as logging, wildfires, and hunting) but not removed.

Researchers believe the environmental impact of degraded forests may have been underestimated and work is urgently needed to get a clearer picture of how this will affect the future.

“There is growing consensus that the combined impact of degradation on forest biodiversity and carbon stocks is of comparable magnitude to the impact of deforestation,” said Dr Jos Barlow, from Lancaster Environment Centre who is leading the research alongside Professor Carlos Joly at the State University of Campinas in Brazil.

“In areas where no intact forests remain, these heavily modified forests are the last refuges for many endemic species (such as the Golden Parakeet, Guaruba guarouba), yet we still have limited understanding of how these forests are functioning.

"We will focus our research on three widespread forms of human modification - selective logging, burning and regenerated forests. We will assess biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in these areas.”

A series of monitoring sites will be set up in areas ranging from intact pristine forest to severely degraded landscapes, and everything in between. Researchers will monitor traits, such as wood density, photosynthesis and leaf structure, of individual tree species in these different landscapes.

Using computer modeling, they will then extrapolate to predict what could happen to tropical forests, and the wildlife they support, in alternative future scenarios.

“We aim to deliver a step-change in our understanding of the consequences of forest degradation and regeneration, said Dr Barlow. “This will enable us to better predict the responses of tropical forests to climate change, logging and deforestation.”

Fieldwork on the ECOFOR research project will take place in the Atlantic and Amazon forests. It is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK, and the Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP) in Brazil.

"Considering the complexity of the two large Brazilian forests – Amazon and Atlantic Forest - the challenges posed by this Project are great. But this first meeting has shown that besides being extremely well qualified the research team is strongly committed and determined to tackle these challenges. We are not only willing to fulfill the goals promised to both research agencies – NERC and FAPESP – but also to leave as legacy a theoretical framework and an experimental design for long term research in Neotropical Human Modified Forests" said Professor Joly.

Partner institutions include Universities of Oxford, Leeds, Edinburgh and Imperial College in the UK, the University of São Paulo, the São Paulo Institute of Botany, Agronomy Institute of Campinas, EMBRAPA, INPA and the Goeldi Museum in Brazil, and the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden. The study builds upon the collaborative work of RAINFOR and ForestPlots.net.