Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Geography - SoGE


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.
Title HMTF film 
Description A short film specifically focusing on the Malaysian part of the Human Modified Tropical Forests Programme (i.e. incorporating the work of the BALI, LOMBOK and SAFE projects) has been developed and is now available on the HMTF website ( 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The video has helped to showcase our research and objectives to the general public and to raise awareness. 
Description We have described the productivity of Asian tropical forests for the first time, and shown how carbon and nutrient cycling in Asian forests varies along a disturbance gradient. We have shown for the first time that the high growth rate of logged forests is probably caused by shifts in allocation.

We have shown that logged forests remain major sources of carbon many decades after logging, through soil carbon emissions. This shows that it is important to look beyond biomass only when examing the carbon implications of logging and forest management.
Exploitation Route We are liaising with Sabah forest department to inform forest management policies.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Ecosystem Carbon and Nitrogen Dynamics of Tropical Peatland: A Comprehensive Assessment of Carbon Dynamics of Forest Conversion to Oil Palm Plantation (PHASE II)
Amount RM7,500,000 (MYR)
Organisation Malaysian Palm Oil Board 
Sector Public
Country Malaysia
Start 03/2018 
End 12/2022
Description GEM-TRAITS ERC Advanced Investigator Award
Amount € 2,500,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 04/2013 
End 04/2018
Description NERC Standard Grant
Amount £820,429 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P00363X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 12/2020
Description The multi-year impacts of the 2015/2016 El Nino on the carbon cycle of tropical forests
Amount £650,394 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P001092/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2016 
End 11/2021
Title Human Modified Tropical Forests Programme Data Management 
Description Database for archiving of metadata across the HMTF programme. As of February 2017, Primary meta datasets have been identified. In total, there are approx. 82 for LOMBOK, 69 for ECOFOR and 134 for BALI 
Type Of Material Data handling & control 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Central storage of metadata documents for (i) Tracking by DM of metadata information completeness (ii) Ease of metadata update by researchers (iii) Increasing awareness of available datasets between research projects The HMTF data management database can now identify datasets with environmental data across the three consortia, increasing the opportunity for collaboration between research groups and modellers. The second phase of the programme where DOI's are needed to support papers for journals (i.e. datasets needing to be uploaded to EIDC) has started. The HMTF programme website has been updated with relevant information and links to support researchers through this (available at 
Description Dr Noreen Majalap, Forest Research Centre, Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah, Malaysia 
Organisation Forest Research Centre
Country Malaysia 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution Expertise in forest carbon dynamics.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in nutrient analyses and tree species identification, access to analytical equipment and laboratory facilities, intellectual input in research design and data collection. Support in local research permit applications.
Impact A DPhil thesis on forest nutrient dynamics and several publications on forest carbon and nutrient dynamics are forthcoming.
Start Year 2013
Description Prof Charles S. Vairappan, Universiti Malaysia Sabah 
Organisation Malaysian University of Sabah
Department Institute for Tropical Biology Conservation
Country Malaysia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise on forest carbon dynamics. Guest lectures in the university.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in organic chemistry. Access to laboratory facilities.
Impact Several publications on forest carbon dynamics are forthcoming.
Start Year 2013
Description South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) 
Organisation South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP)
Country Malaysia 
Sector Multiple 
PI Contribution Expertise in forest carbon cycling, training of research assistants in the methods.
Collaborator Contribution Access to SAFE Project research site, intellectual input in research design and data collection, expertise in local conditions and support for logistics.
Impact Several publications in tropical forest carbon dynamics are forthcoming.
Start Year 2013
Description Aberdeen University Doors Open Day 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact University of Aberdeen opened its doors to members of the public, 9th September 2017. Following last year's success, BALI researchers set up another 'tropical forests' themed stall to help showcase our work and talk to visitors about our research. We displayed photos from our field trips as well as tropical seeds, insect and animal specimens. We had ~1400 visitors throughout the day including visitors to the Zoology Museum and Biodiversity Centre. Main impact: Knowledge exchange
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Article in Daily Mail about the tallest tropical tree 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Newspaper article describing the tallest tropical tree found to date.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Article in New Scientist about the tallest tropical tree 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article in New Scientists describing the tallest tropical tree found to date.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Friends of Borneensis educational event for Malaysian secondary school students 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A three-day educational event organised by the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, for thirty secondary school students from five local secondary schools. In the event, the students learn about the flora, fauna and environmental issues in Sabah, through lectures, demonstrations and small-scale field projects. Members of the BALI research team teach in this event. The students reported increased knowledge and increased awareness of and appreciation for nature and conservation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016