Biodiversity, ecosystem functions and policy across a tropical forest modification gradient

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


Tropical forests support over two-thirds of the world's terrestrial biodiversity. However, between 35% and 50% of tropical forests have already been degraded, and the rate of deforestation continues to increase. Secondary forests, plantations and other human-modified habitats now dominate tropical landscapes, leading to concerns that human degradation of these landscapes will elevate greenhouse gas emissions and jeopardise ecosystem services at local, regional and global scales. The area of protected forests is unlikely to increase greatly in the future, so the persistence of tropical biodiversity and the important biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem services associated with it will depend to a large extent on the way we treat the wider tropical landscape. The Human Modified Tropical Forests programme seeks to 'significantly improve our understanding of the links between biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles in tropical forests' through 'integrated observations and modelling linked to gradients in forest modification'. To contribute towards this goal our consortium will use surveys along a modification gradient within the SAFE landscape in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) to detect patterns, combined with manipulative field experiments to gain a mechanistic understanding of biodiversity-function linkages. We will assess links between above- and belowground components of tropical biodiversity and investigate the extent to which different elements of biodiversity (e.g. species of conservation concern) are associated with measures of ecosystem function (decomposition processes and biogeochemical cycles). We will then upscale from the experimental sites to the landscape-scale to generate spatial layers of ecosystem function, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas fluxes to inform policy scenario modeling. Our work will thus (1) characterise soil microbial function and measuring associated biogeochemical fluxes; (2) Experimentally test the links between aboveground biodiversity and soil function; (3) Build and add to existing datasets for bird and mammals, and explore correlations between ecosystem functioning and the distribution of species of conservation concern; and (4) Explore policy scenarios for optimising biodiversity and function protection.

Planned Impact

The project will generate high quality research that will improve our comprehension of the impact of anthropogenic land-use alterations on the natural world. It will contribute greatly to the pool of excellent studies being published by UK academics, supporting our reputation as world-leaders in the field of global environmental change. To this end, the project is highly relevant to the NERC mission and delivers in relation to both its strategic 'biodiversity' and 'climate system' themes.
Who might benefit from this research? We have identified 5 key stakeholder groups listed below.
1: Academic community: please refer to the 'Academic Beneficiaries' section for details.
2: Oil palm and forestry industry groups: including oil palm producers (e.g. Sime Darby, Benta Wawasan), government agencies (e.g. Malaysian Palm Oil Board, MOPB; Indonesian Palm Oil Association, GAPKI; Sabah Forestry Department; Sabah Parks Department), research organisations (e.g. Center for International Forestry Research, CIFOR; Royal Society's SEnSOR programme) and consultancies (e.g. WildAsia Malaysia, Daemeter Consulting Indonesia, People Nature Consulting Indonesia, REDD+ Task Force).
3: UK and EU policy-makers: such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC; UK government department for international climate policy), Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra; producer of the UK Statement on Sustainable Palm Oil), Department for International Development (DFID; funder of research into poverty alleviation through oil palm production), and the European Commission (who make EU-wide decisions pertaining to palm oil production and consumption via instruments such as the Renewable Fuels Directive).
4. Non-governmental organisations: comprising of those working in forest-agricultural landscapes (e.g. Hutan- Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, Greenpeace, WWF, Conservation International, Rainforest Foundation).
5: General public: who demonstrate a keen awareness of tropical forest ecology, threatened species, oil palm production and climate change issues.

How might they benefit from this research?
1: Academic community: please see 'Academic Beneficiaries'
2 & 4. Oil palm and forestry industry groups/Non-governmental organisations: our project findings will provide recommendations on how to maximise profitability of oil palm plantations while maintaining, or even enhancing, ecosystem function and biodiversity. This state-of-the-art knowledge will benefit organisations interested in both sustainable oil palm production and forestry, particularly in the context of policies (REDD+) and certification schemes (e.g. Forest Stewardship Council, FSC; Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, RSPO; Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels). By engaging these organisations in knowledge exchange throughout the programme of research, we can ensure that our work will be of value in terms of 'real-world' implementation and impact.
3: UK and EU policy-makers: increasing sustainable oil palm agriculture and reducing forest degradation/loss are key policy objectives globally. Our results will provide an informative evidence-base to support policy decision-making in this area, which is currently highly controversial, contradictory and dynamic (e.g. the recently introduced 'Nutella Amendment' in France, that has seen taxes on palm oil products increase by 300% due to environmental concerns; the recent decision by the EU to advocate palm oil produced according to RSPO guidelines as 'sustainable').
5: General public: the project will be of interest to the general population worldwide, as indicated by the substantial media coverage on tropical biodiversity and the associated impacts of human activities. This is an important means by which we can engage/inform the public about the value of biodiversity (e.g. its intrinsic worth, economic significance, ecosystem service provision) and promote awareness of sustainable use and conservation.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/K016148/1 30/09/2013 03/04/2015 £208,912
NE/K016148/2 Transfer NE/K016148/1 04/04/2015 03/10/2018 £166,407
Description From three field seasons in Borneo completed, we have collected >3000 samples from individual bats for stable isotope analysis and the representative samples of insect prey, fungi, fresh leaf material, leaf litter and soil to be able to characterise the food web interactions across a forest modification gradient.
Particular families of bats appear more adaptable to the changing environment (forest modification) and hence their populations are more resilient to change. We have also run in situ experiments to determine the role of dung beetles in nutrient cycling and greenhouse gas transmission in modified ecosystems. Analyses for these are still preliminary.
The PhD student associated with this grant, Tor Kemp, has received specialist training in stable isotope ecology (Berlin Summer School), meta-analysis (University of East Anglia), advanced environmental data analysis using GIS (University of Newcastle), data analysis in R (Cardiff University) and tropical insect Identification (university of Oxford), thereby increasing research capability.
Exploitation Route Academics interested in neighbouring habitats eg stream riparian zones, may wish to use data accrued from the forest modification gradient.

Non-academics will be interested in the response of top predators (bats) of conservation concern to changes in their feeding environment and how the relative use of basal resources shifts across the modified landscape.
Sectors Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description British Ecological Society travel grant
Amount £450 (GBP)
Organisation British Ecological Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2016 
End 04/2016
Description Contribution to insect collection 
Organisation Malaysian University of Sabah
Country Malaysia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Samples collected as part of food web analysis across a forest modification gradient have been lodged at the insect reference collection
Collaborator Contribution Taxonomic expertise and guidance in the use of the reference collection
Impact Not yet
Start Year 2016
Description Berlin Summer School on use of stable isotopes in ecology 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact 25 attendees on a week-long, residential summer school to share experiences and learn from expert tutors, bringing own data-sets for interrogation; increased uptake of use of stable isotopes in studies post workshop
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Science at SAFE meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Poster stimulated discussion from both within and outside consortium

Contact from previous PhD students within SAFE to generate future collaboration or spin offs from their studies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014