Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre


Anthropogenic disturbance and land-use change in the tropics is leading to irrevocable changes in biodiversity and substantial shifts in ecosystem biogeochemistry. Yet, we still have a poor understanding of how human-driven changes in biodiversity feed back to alter biogeochemical processes. This knowledge gap substantially restricts our ability to model and predict the response of tropical ecosystems to current and future environmental change. There are a number of critical challenges to our understanding of how changes in biodiversity may alter ecosystem processes in the tropics; namely: (i) how the high taxonomic diversity of the tropics is linked to ecosystem functioning, (ii) how changes in the interactions among trophic levels and taxonomic groups following disturbance impacts upon functional diversity and biogeochemistry, and (iii) how plot-level measurements can be used to scale to whole landscapes. We have formed a consortium to address these critical challenges to launch a large-scale, replicated, and fully integrated study that brings together a multi-disciplinary team with the skills and expertise to study the necessary taxonomic and trophic groups, different biogeochemical processes, and the complex interactions amongst them.

To understand and quantify the effects of land-use change on the activity of focal biodiversity groups and how this impacts biogeochemistry, we will: (i) analyse pre-existing data on distributions of focal biodiversity groups; (ii) sample the landscape-scale treatments at the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project site (treatments include forest degradation, fragmentation, oil palm conversion) and key auxiliary sites (Maliau Basin - old growth on infertile soils, Lambir Hills - old growth on fertile soils, Sabah Biodiversity Experiment - rehabilitated forest, INFAPRO-FACE - rehabilitated forest); and (iii) implement new experiments that manipulate key components of biodiversity and pathways of belowground carbon flux.

The manipulations will focus on trees and lianas, mycorrhizal fungi, termites and ants, because these organisms are the likely agents of change for biogeochemical cycling in human-modified tropical forests. We will use a combination of cutting-edge techniques to test how these target groups of organisms interact each other to affect biogeochemical cycling. We will additionally collate and analyse archived data on other taxa, including vertebrates of conservation concern. The key unifying concept is the recognition that so-called 'functional traits' play a key role in linking taxonomic diversity to ecosystem function. We will focus on identifying key functional traits associated with plants, and how they vary in abundance along the disturbance gradient at SAFE. In particular, we propose that leaf functional traits (e.g. physical and chemical recalcitrance, nitrogen content, etc.) play a pivotal role in determining key ecosystem processes and also strongly influence atmospheric composition. Critically, cutting-edge airborne remote sensing techniques suggest it is possible to map leaf functional traits, chemistry and physiology at landscape-scales, and so we will use these novel airborne methods to quantify landscape-scale patterns of forest degradation, canopy structure, biogeochemical cycling and tree distributions. Process-based mathematical models will then be linked to the remote sensing imagery and ground-based measurements of functional diversity and biogeochemical cycling to upscale our findings over disturbance gradients.

Planned Impact

See Lead


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Description Tropical rainforests are a globally important reservoir of hyperdiversity that contributes significantly to the Earth's nutrient cylcing and greenhouse gas budget. These forests are also important socio-economic resources with natural capital that is crucial for human wellbeing and wealth in regions that are often developing options for grwoth. The tropical forests of Borneo have been severely affected by selective logging of high value woods and clear-felling to make room for industrial scale Oil Palm plantations. There is now considerable uncertainty regarding the impact of these economically important practices on the diversity, function and sustainability of these ecosystems. Specifically, there is a paucity of knowledge regarding the impact of this combined pressure on tropical rainforest soils, their biodiversity and their resistance to future disturbances.

This NERC Thematic programme research was comissioned to allow a consortium of UK and Malaysian researchers to work together testing ideas about the resistance and sustainability of tropical forest plant-soil ecosystems. A novel 'ecological trait' based approach was devised and deployed accross land management disturbance gradients and forest restoration sites in the Sabbah region of Malaysia in northern Bornea. This invoved plant and soil scientists living in, working through and sampling pristine and degraded rainforest, oil palm plantations and large-scale rainforest restoration experiments. The research supported here was particularly focused on soil proerties and processes accross these gradients.

Key findings so far include:
1. Evidence of strong relationship between landuse, forest traits and soil properties, including resistance to future climate change.
2. Evidence that soil ecology and microbial diversity are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of deforestation and logging.
3. Evidence that restoration does not full recover the soil microbial community.

This research grant ended in November 2018 - 2 PhD students continue their work into 2019 - this means that much work on data and publications is ongoing.
Exploitation Route It is anticipated that evidence from across the project can be used by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (that includes industry, science, local and national governmental agencies) to develop improved methods and approaches to palm oil production. Specifically around the protection of vulnerable soils and watercourses.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment

Description Findings are being gathered and used by the South East Asian Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) as evidence of the impacts of the effects of selective logging and conversion to Oil Palm plantations. Potential use in discussions with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to improve practices that will protect soil from degradation, biodiversity loss and erosion into water courses.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description PhD student visit to Lancaster University 
Organisation Chinese Academy of Sciences
Country China 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Research support in LU laboratories to allow the Chinese student to develop new skills and analytical approaches.
Collaborator Contribution The student is funded by the CAS and is co-supervised by N. Ostle and L.Luo at the Guangzhou Institute for Geochemistry.
Impact Ongoing
Start Year 2015
Description NERC Human Modified Tropical forest programme Engagement event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This was workshop event bringing together scientists, Oil palm industry representatives and advocates for sustainability. Hosted at Oxford University.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016