Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in degraded and recovering Amazonian and Atlantic forests

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Geography


Tropical forests hold more species of plant and animal than any other kind of terrestrial environment, and store large amounts of greenhouse gases in their trees and soils. Yet most of us are aware that they are also highly threatened by human activities, with media attention often focusing on deforestation - when forests are replaced with alternative land-uses, such as agriculture and cattle ranching. However, forests are also being modified in other ways, when trees are felled for the commercial extraction of timber, or when forest burn in abnormally dry years. These events are known as forest degradation, and affect a larger area of land than deforestation alone.
The widespread nature of forest degradation means it is very important to understand whether these human-modified forests are performing similar roles as intact primary forests. How much carbon and nitrogen do they hold, and are these nutrients cycled between the leaves and the forest floor at similar rates as in primary forests? Can these ecosystem processes by predicted by characteristics of the vegetation itself (such as leaf shape and format, and the rate it carries out photosynthesis). And crucially, what are the implications of these changes for the future of these forests - are they able to resist additional modification? This project will answer these questions in two separate Brazilian biomes, the Atlantic Forests of Sao Paulo and the Amazon forests near the city of Santarem. The data we collect in two years of fieldwork will be used to improve our understanding of forest functioning, and to develop computer simulations of forests. These simulations will then be used to examine how forests may respond to changes in climate, or other human impacts such as logging or fire.
These forests are also crucial for biodiversity conservation, as many rare and endemic species are only found in landscapes where forests have already been heavily modified by humans. It is important to assess to what extent they help conserve these species, and what factors could be managed to improve their conservation value. Tropical forests hold a bewildering number of species, and so many of these species are yet to be described. It is therefore important to focus on groups of species which are well known, making birds and plants are two ideal species groups.
The detailed work on forest functioning will take place in a limited number of forest plots, as we are limited by the many precise measures that need to be taken over time. In contrast, biodiversity is much quicker to sample, allowing us to examine much larger areas of around one million hectares in the Amazon and in the Atlantic Forest. As well as examining biodiversity in these landscapes, this project will also assess changes in species traits, which are characteristics that link species to the many tasks they perform in nature. By doing so, we will be able to examine the extent to which human-modified forests are losing key ecosystem processes, such as pollination from long-beaked hummingbirds, or the ability of trees to assimilate and store large quantities of carbon. This will provide us with a much better idea of how the many different kinds of human activity are affecting biodiversity, which is important if we are to design landscapes that help protect the many species of conservation concern.
For too long, important scientific knowledge has remained locked away in learned journals, and has failed to inform and influence policies. We are determined not to let this happen with our research, as we believe it will produce important insights that can help us preserve the ecological stability of tropical forests and the biodiversity they contain. To facilitate these impacts, we will make every effort to disseminate our findings. These activities include producing a series of short films for YouTube, linking with local schools, and writing policy briefs that can be presented to politicians, NGOs & environmental charities

Planned Impact

Please see lead document for the complete version

Objective 1 will help inform the managers of protected areas (Serra do Mar park and the Tapajós National Forest) about the sustainability of forest management activities and their impact on forest dynamics and biodiversity. Specifically, this will address reduced impact logging in the Tapajós National Forest and the long-term impacts of conventional logging in the Serra do Mar.

Objective 2 will provide precise policy options outlining the environmental and social benefits of avoiding degradation and encouraging forest restoration for the municipalities of Santarém-Belterra in the Amazon and for c. 30 municipalities that cover the region of interest in the Paraiba do Sul basin in São Paulo. The extrapolation of results for the state of Pará and the humid forest zone of the state of São Paulo will help State and Federal policy makers in Brazil to evaluate existing policies and test new possibilities.

The scaling up activities developed in Objective 3 will provide guidance on the vulnerability of tropical forest systems to anthropogenic modification, including the synergistic threats of forest degradation and climate change induced droughts. This is relevant for IPCC, the Conferences of Parties of the UNFCCC, and global NGOs such as TNC, WWF, and CI.


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Description One important outcome we find is that leaf photosynthesis thermal thresholds which we determined to be around 50 C of transitional forest species along the southern end of Amazonia are by now almost reached given current temperatures. Temperatures have risen particularly rapidly over recent decades in this region. based on our result we expect shifts in vegetation composition towards savannah vegetation.
Exploitation Route We build on acquired expertise, technology development, contacts with existing and new partners (Brazil, Peru, India) which includes new masters and PhD students to obtain in depth understanding of expected changes in tropical forest functioning in the future. Amongst other we also work with biochemists (Christine Foyer) to obtain mechanistic insights at fundamental levels. It includes new grants and collaborations. Other new directions is the use of remote sensing information which we plan to use to scale our results of tree thermal sensitivity to larger regions in tropical South America.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The project aims to understand how the dynamics and biogeochemical cycling of Atlantic and tropical humid forests in Brazil change as a result of human disturbance (including clear cutting). The work should provide quantitative guidance for: (i) conservation (ii) re-afforestation of Atlantic forests We have and still do continuous eco-physiological measurements of forests of various stages of recovery and across fragment sizes. We are thus able to characterize these different systems and to some extent how their dynamics differ. One characteristic we have measured is light and temperature environments. With regards to temperature we are investigating effects of heat peaks both in situ and in growth chambers. In a warming world montane Atlantic forests may be threatened by a warming climate. Results from field studies and open chamber laboratory studies reveal on the one hand different strategies of leaf thermal regulation for different species and also suprisingly high tolerance for heat peaks.
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal

Description ARBOLES: A trait-based Understanding of LATAM Forest Biodiversity and Resilience
Amount £1,107,054 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S011811/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 01/2022
Description Tree growth chamber experiments of tree functioning under temperature stress 
Organisation Universidade de São Paulo
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution S Fauset, PDRA with our project, worked at Marcos Buckeridges laboratory (University de Sao Paulo) to study sapling functioning responses to elevated temperatures under semi-controlled conditions. The collaboration is likely to continue as part of future projects - specifically the intent to install growth chamber like structures around trees in particularly hot locations (like e.g. Mato Grosso, Brazil).
Collaborator Contribution The partners offered to host our PDRA and for her to use their 'open' growth chambers at University de Sao Paulo.
Impact Publication in preparation - interesting results.
Start Year 2016