Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Life Sciences


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

This work will be of interest to a broad group of academics such as:

1. Ecological theoreticians, especially in the context of biodiversity-ecosystem functioning
Our manipulative experiments will enable interactions among key organisms to be tested under field conditions.

2. Biogeochemical modellers of forest ecosystems
We will amass a comprehensive dataset used to develop and link existing models of trace gas fluxces in tropical forests.

3. Plant ecophysiologists
We will collate an extensive dataset on plant traits across the SAFE disturbance gradient.
Our manipulate experiments will also use in situ stable isotope labelling to test how plant functional type affects pathways of belowground carbon flux.

4. Soil fungal ecologists, especially with an interst in mycorrhizae
Our manipulative experiments will provide extensive data on the contribution made by external fungal mycelium of both ectomycorrhizas, which associate with heavily-logged dipterocarps, and arbuscular mycorrhizas, which associate with understorey plants.

5. Soil scientists
We will obtain a range of data on soil processes such as nutrient mineralisation and nutrient status and other soil properties in response to experimental manipulations and land-use change.

6. Atmospheric chemists
We will provide unique data obtained at scales from the plot, ecosystem to landdscape. These data will enable us to link disturbance intensity to atmospheric chemistry.

7. Invertebrate ecologists
Our consortium will analyse how human modification has affected invertebrate communities in soil and litter, and the manipulations will test how these changes interact with other focal biodiversity groups.

8. Conservationists
We will investigate how the distribution and abundance of species of conservation concern are related to human modification of forests, and the key biogeochemical processes they undertake. The consortium will provide a rigorous understanding of how human modificationof forests affects a broad range of key ecosystem processes.

9. Technologists
We will use a range of cutting-edge technologies under challenging conditions that will contribute to their further development and refinement for future generations of scientists.


10 25 50

publication icon
Tuma J (2020) Ant-termite interactions: an important but under-explored ecological linkage. in Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society

publication icon
Stork NE (2017) Consistency of effects of tropical-forest disturbance on species composition and richness relative to use of indicator taxa. in Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology

publication icon
Aanen DK (2017) Symbiogenesis: Beyond the endosymbiosis theory? in Journal of theoretical biology

publication icon
Ashton LA (2019) Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest. in Science (New York, N.Y.)

publication icon
Griffiths HM (2018) Ants are the major agents of resource removal from tropical rainforests. in The Journal of animal ecology

Description So far we have developed methods to suppress ant and termite populations in tropical rain forests, as well as conducting 'before' invertebrate surveys and collected 'before' soil data.

Our initial findings show that we have succeeded in suppressing both ants and termites to about 5% of their original activity levels. This has had a profound effect on non-target invertebrates, as well as herbivory, decomposition and soil moisture levels.
Exploitation Route Other researchers wishing to conduct invertebrate manipulation experiments: other related experiments are taking place in Borneo Sumatra and Australia,
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Papers published in Science, Current Biology, Global Change Biology and the Journal of Animal Ecology have highlighted the importance of ants and termites in tropical ecosystems. We have shown that ants are responsible for the majority of resource removal on the forest floor in Bornean rain forest and that termites are vital for decomposition in the same forests, and protect against the negative effects of drought. This shows the extraordinary importance of social insects in the tropics.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Societal

Description Leverhulme
Amount £300,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 10/2020
Title Methods for suppressiojn of ant and termite communities 
Description A combination of baiting with targeted poisons and physical removal to allow ecological suppression of social insect communities. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Still in development. 
Description Metagenomics of ant prey 
Organisation University of South Bohemia
Country Czech Republic 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Working on the adavnces made in the original NERC gtrant we are ionvolved in a more ambitious project to use modern DNA techniques to discover what is eaten by Malaysian ants.
Collaborator Contribution They will do the metagenomics eotk is their lab.
Impact None yet.
Start Year 2016
Description BES meeting 2015, Edinburgh 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact All of research team gave talks about the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Nature Live presentations (NHM) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Nature Live allows communication of NHM staff to the general public.

Recruitment of additional volunteers for the research group.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2011,2013,2014,2015,2016
Description Nature Live talk to NHM visitors 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presenting an overview of work to the general public
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Pop-up Science at IUSSI meeting, Cairns 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public were fascinated by termite biology. Very positive responses.

Greater understanding of social insect biology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014