Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Chemistry


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

Beneficiaries will include the policy makers associated with the development of REDD+ schemes (including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNCCC] and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]), forest managers at company and State level, the oil palm industry, academic institutions in Malaysia, and the conservation sector globally.

REDD+ policy: Results from this project will provide information of key relevance to the management and monitoring of degraded forests within REDD+ schemes. In particular this work will quantify the impacts of habitat degradation and change on belowground biodiversity and processes and develop a series of robust indicators, which can be developed into effective monitoring strategies to assess forest degradation and recovery. REDD+ policy is of particular importance given UNFCCC COP negotiations in Doha in December 2012. The UNFCCC are active in developing guidance for REDD+, and REDD+ is one of the hottest topics in development of the IPCC chapter on Agriculture Forestry and Other Land Use.

Forest Managers: Belowground processes are key to sustainable forest management. The development of user-friendly survey techniques will allow timber industries to assess the impacts of existing management options more fully. |In particular the project will allow assessment of key strategies for aiding forest recovery; crucial for sustainable timber production in the region.

Oil palm industry: The increasing focus of the global oil palm industry on corporate social responsibility and the development of more sustainable management practices through schemes such as the RSPO, has precipitated a growing need for robust monitoring of belowground processes associated with sustainable oil palm production. The indicators developed in this project will be key to this and will facilitate the monitoring of these processes in a plantation context for the first time.

Academic institutions in Malaysia: Despite a growing body of biodiversity research in the region, the biodiversity of Southeast Asia, particularly that of belowground components, remains relatively little studied. Such a knowledge gap can act as a barrier for continued ecological research in the region. This project will provide detailed information on species data for belowground systems.

Conservation sector: The growth of tropical agriculture represents the major threat to biodiversity globally. However, conservation organizations are sometimes hampered in their ability to converse with government policy makers, through lack of detailed information about the impacts of habitat change. This project will fill a knowledge gap in this area and provide detailed data on the impacts of habitat change on below ground biodiversity and ecosystem processes.


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Description Observations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been made at the Danum Valley Observatory, Bukit Atur, Borneo, Malaysia over a period covering one annual cycle. The main focus of the research was isoprene observations and their impact upon global emissions from tropical forest environments. A seasonal cycle for isoprene has been successfully observed and reveals very little variation in emission across the course of the year. The data has been used to better inform the emissions from the region in the GEOSCHEM model (details?).

Further work has highlighted the importance of biomass burning in the region at certain times of year and clear evidence of this has been observed from the data collected where elevated levels of ethane and other biomass burning tracers were observed at times.

Analyses (using Non-negative matrix factorisation methods) of the key sources influencing the VOC composition at the measurement site show major contributions from biogenic, biomass burning and local anthropogenic sources. This element of the work was not anticipated at the proposal writing stage.

This research and its findings are informative to the Malaysian Government who may be concerned by the impact of land-use change on the regional air quality. The research project was performed in close collaboration with Dr Shahrul Nadzir at UKM, Malaysia and the Malaysian Meteorology Department (MMD) who operate the Observatory.
Exploitation Route The data set comprises VOC observations over the course of an annual cycle (albeit with some gaps in data coverage) and is likely of interest to the wider atmospheric science community. The data will be of use for a range of purposes including the evaluation of emissions estimates, as inputs for global models, evaluating the prediction-skill of atmospheric models and comparison with satellite observation data.
Sectors Environment

Description Training given to Malaysian Meteorology Department Staff
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Training given to Shahrul Nadzir, Research Group Leader at UKM
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Dr Shahrul Nadzir has visited the University of York on a couple of occasions during the project. In February 2017 training was given on: 1. The operation of analytical equipment to measure VOCs in the atmosphere 2. Best practices in sample handling techniques for Whole Air Sampling 3. Best practices in Calibration procedures for the analytical equipment. Dr Nadzir then disseminated this knowledge within the small research group he leads at the National University of Malaysia (UKM).
Title Isoprene mixing ratios 
Description Observations of isoprene have been made in the Borneo rainforest (at the Bukit Atur observatory in Danum Valley). Roughly hourly observations have been made from the canopy top since September 2015. Further testing is required before making the data publicly available, but once this has been preformed the data will be submitted to the British Atmospheric Data Centre (BADC). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact If operation of the equipment can continue then these observations will be the start of the first long-term data set of isoprene in this region. 
Description Collaboration with Dr Shahrul Nafzir at UKM 
Organisation National University of Malaysia
Country Malaysia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Shahrul Nadzir has visited us at the University of York on a couple of occasions, most recently in February 2017. During this trip training has been given on: 1. the operation of analytical equipment to measure VOCs in the atmosphere 2. sample handling techniques for Whole Air Sampling 3. Calibration procedures
Collaborator Contribution Dr Nadzir has considerable experience of operations at the Bukit Atur GAW station (where the equipment is housed for this project) and has provided assistance in communicating our activities to the local research technicians at the site.
Impact Numerous instrumental issues have arisen since the equipment was deployed. The collaboration has ensured that issues have been handled in a timely fashion by local research technicians. Following detailed discussions with Dr Nadzir, regarding the impacts of land-use change in the region, Dr Nadzir won funding for a project investigating the impacts of land-use change on the atmosphere around Kuala Lumpur. We are currently working on a peer reviewed research publication from this work.
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with the Malaysian Meteorology Department 
Organisation Malaysian Meteorology Department (MMD)
Country Malaysia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Shani Garraway (PhD Student) and I were responsible for training the Malaysian Meteorology Department (MMD) staff in the operation of equipment housed at the Danum Valley Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) Observatory and working with them to maintain the equipment to enable collection of a data set for VOCs at the Observatory.
Collaborator Contribution Colleagues at MMD helped to maintain and service the equipment housed at the observatory during their weekly visits. Routine tasks were completed independently by MMD staff, while more serious issues were diagnosed and communicated to Shani and I for us to advise on fault-finding methods in order to get the equipment running again. This collaboration was integral to the success of the project.
Impact This collaboration resulted in a data set of VOCs being collected which was used by Shani Garraway in her PhD Thesis. Work is underway on a peer-reviewed publication form this work.
Start Year 2015
Description Into the Blue Public Engagement Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The overall event was to showcase a broad range of research conducted by numerous institutions and funded by NERC. The event gave people the chance to see world-class science up close. During Into the blue people were able to explore the tools used to make science happen, see the extraordinary work of scientists and find out how it impacts on all our lives - improving our water, air, energy and health. The science behind the Biodiversity and Land-Use Impacts on Tropical Ecosystem function (BALI) project were disseminated via an interactive display looking at scientists from NCAS and what they do. Jim Hopkins was filmed describing some of the work at the Bukit Atur observatory as part of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016