ARBOLES: A trait-based Understanding of LATAM Forest Biodiversity and Resilience

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


Latin American forests cover a very large latitudinal and climate gradient extending from the tropics to Southern hemisphere high latitudes. The continent therefore hosts a large variety of forest types including the Amazon - the world's largest tropical forest - as well as the diverse Atlantic forests concentrated along the coast, temperate forests in Chile and Argentina as well as the cold rainforests of Valdivia and the Nothofagus forests of Patagonia. These forests are global epicentres of biological diversity and include several tropical and extra-tropical biodiversity hotspots. For example, the Amazon rainforest is home to ~10% of terrestrial plant and animal species and store a large fraction of global organic carbon. hotspots.

Some of these Latin American forests still cover a large fraction of their original (pre-colombian) extent: the Amazon still covers approximately 5 Million km2, which is 80% of its original area. However, others, such as the Atlantic forest, have nearly disappeared and are now heavily fragmented. Temperate forests have also shrunk, despite efforts to halt further reduction. However, economic development, population rises and the growth in global drivers of environmental change mean that all forests now face strong anthropogenic pressures. Locally stressors generally result from ongoing development, selective logging, the hunting of larger birds and mammals, over-exploitation of key forest resources such as valuable palm fruits, mining, and/or forest conversion for agricultural use. Global environmental drivers stem from the world's warming climate. Yet it is not clear how these local pressures and changing environmental conditions will alter the composition of Latin American forests, and whether there are thresholds between human impacts - such as the lack of dispersers in heavily fragmented forest landscapes or climate conditions exceeding limits of species tolerance - and the community level responses of forest plants.
We aim to investigate this, supporting the development of strategies that can preserve the diversity of these forests and their functioning. We achieve this by investigating the relationships between diversity and functioning of these forests; exploring whether there are thresholds in functioning resulting both from pressures of forest use and changing climate; by experimentally testing responses; and by generalizing predictive capability to large scales. ARBOLES aims to achieve these goals by integrating established forest inventory approaches with cutting-edge functional trait, genomics, experimental and remote sensing approaches.

Our approach involves combining forest plots with plant traits, which will enable us to characterize state and shifts over time in the face of local human disturbance and changing climate and atmospheric composition. We will focus on traits along the following axes: (i) life-history strategies measuring investment in structure (like wood density, leaf mass per area, maximum height), (ii) investment in productive organs (like leaf nutrients), (iii) investment in reproductive organs, (iv) tolerance to water stress and heat stress. The work is being conducted in collaboration with research groups in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru - and will provide a first cross-continent assessment of how humans are influencing Latin American forests.

Planned Impact

ARBOLES has clear societal applications. Results of our analyses will demonstrate which plant species groups are most impacted by global environmental change and by local disturbances. Furthermore, they will inform us about which plant attributes (traits) underpin ongoing changes in composition across LATAM forests. Our results will further highlight the relative impacts of different forms of disturbance (e.g. defaunation, logging) thus providing a basis for prioritising policy for conservation. Our experimental work (warming/drying) on key plant species used for restoration will provide a basis for restoration practitioners to select species which are more tolerant to climate change (climate-smart agriculture). Similar work conducted on taxa of important agricultural and forestry values will further yield insights into the sensitivity of these species to climate change. Finally, our remote sensing work will provide new large-scale insights into the resilience of LATAM forests to local and global change that are likely to have important development and conservation implications, providing regional policymakers with understanding of how vulnerable different forest types may be to local and global stressors.

ARBOLES team members span four LATAM countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru). The project will enhance scientific capacity within LATAM countries by promoting clear opportunities for early-career scientists to be part a leading scientific team. The reach of the scientific capacity building we propose will be supported by the diverse range of research institutions involved beyond the funded partner countries (including project partner participation from Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela). ARBOLES will fully supporting science-society links by engaging with government and non-government institutions involved in natural resource management or monitoring, such as the National Institute of Space Research(INPE) who oversee monitoring activities in Brazil, the Forestry Institute (INFOR) in Chile who have been undertaking forest inventories across the country, the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) who coordinate community-based restoration in Mato Grosso and the Jardin Botánico de Missouri who are a scientific and education NGO based in Oxapampa in Peru. These linkages will ensure that our results have a clear path to policy impact.


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Aguirre-Gutiérrez J (2021) Pantropical modelling of canopy functional traits using Sentinel-2 remote sensing data in Remote Sensing of Environment

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Aguirre-Gutiérrez J (2021) Pantropical modelling of canopy functional traits using Sentinel-2 remote sensing data in Remote Sensing of Environment

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Coelho De Souza F (2019) Evolutionary diversity is associated with wood productivity in Amazonian forests. in Nature ecology & evolution

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Esquivel-Muelbert A (2020) Tree mode of death and mortality risk factors across Amazon forests. in Nature communications

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Esquivel-Muelbert A (2019) Compositional response of Amazon forests to climate change. in Global change biology

Description Although core ARBOLES papers have still to be published, the grant has contributed to several key research findings over the last year. These include:

1) The largest analysis of the causes of tree mortality in Amazon rainforests undertaken to date (Esquivel Muelbert et al. 2020, Nature Communications,, based on 120,000 trees from over 3800 species.

2) Quantification of the net CO2 emissions associated with Amazonian wildfires (Silva et al. 2020, Environmental Research Letters,

3) New insights into the tolerance of leaves of southern Amazon tree species to extreme temperatures (Tiwari et al. 2020, Plant, Cell and Environment,

4) First analysis of the thermal safety margins (i.e. how close leaf temperatures are to leaf damage thresholds) of trees in the Amazon-Cerrado transition. (Araujo et al. 2021, Environmental Research Letters,
Exploitation Route The results published thus far are highly relevant for our understanding of how LATAM forests respond to climate change and anthropogenic degradation. ARBOLES is already directly contributing to several PhD and MSc studentships in South America and the data collected thus far has high potential to be used for refining model projections of global change impacts on LATAM forest function.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Although it is too early for ARBOLES' findings to translate into non-academic impact, the existence of the project has already helped to build capacity of young researchers in Brazil. This has been achieved through postgraduate training workshops and through ARBOLES-associated PhD studentships (e.g. Igor Araujo, Raiane Goncalves Beu).
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

Description PhD of Igor Araujo
Amount R$ 100,000 (BRL)
Organisation Government of Brazil 
Department Coordination of Higher Education Personnel Training (CAPES)
Sector Public
Country Brazil
Start 03/2020 
End 02/2024
Title New LATAM-wide compilation of plant traits 
Description In ARBOLES, we are working with a wide network of project partners to compile an extensive suite of plant traits which range from leaf and seed traits to very specific and much harder to measure physiological traits (e.g. P50). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The trait data set is still in the process of being compiled, but will ultimately be linked to data on species composition and habitat status to better understand the impact of habitat degradation and changing climate on forests across Latin America. 
Title New database of plant thermal traits 
Description In ARBOLES, we are measuring key thermal traits across LATAM forests. These include the temperature optima and maxima of leaf photosynthesis, the temperature dependency of leaf dark respiration and leaf thermotolerance measurements. This is the first large-scale database of its kind. Traits campaigns have already been carried out in two sites, with a further six trait campaigns due to take place this year. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This database will allow for the first assessment of how different LATAM forests vary in their sensitivity to temperature. Furthermore, it will provide key parameters for improving ecosystem models that predict the impact of climate change on tropical forests. 
Description Collaboration with INPE (Brazilian Space Institute) 
Organisation National Institute for Space Research Brazil
Country Brazil 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution INPE lead an important component of the the project - namely the mapping of canopy traits from space using deep learning techniques. Current efforts involve the mapping of community-weighted mean wood density across Amazonia. UK partners provide an important role in providing base layers for validation of trait prediction algorithms (e.g. community-weighted mean density inferred from forest plot inventory data).
Collaborator Contribution INPE lead on the remote sensing component of the project, providing advanced expertise in artificial intelligence methods that UK partners in the project do not current possess.
Impact No specific outputs as yet
Start Year 2019
Description Collaboration with UNEMAT 
Organisation UNEMAT - Nova Xavantina
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution One component of ARBOLES involves setting up climatically controlled greenhouses in the UNEMAT campus to evaluate the impact of controlled heat and drought on the performance of seedlings of commercially important species. ARBOLES contributes towards the costs of constructing the greenhouses and the installation of the temperature regulation system in the greenhouses. The project also pays for a full-time technician based in UNEMAT to run the greenhouses. A Leeds-based technician has been instrumental in developing the Arduino-controlled temperature systems.
Collaborator Contribution Our UNEMAT partners in Nova Xavantina are Prof. Ben Hur Marimon Junior and Prof. Beatriz Schwantes Marimon, who oversee greenhouse activities locally. The greenhouses are currently in the process of being constructed on the UNEMAT campus, next to the Plant Ecology laboratory, which Prof. Ben Hur and Prof. Beatriz coordinate. They have contributed a substantial amount of time into this component of the work.
Impact No outputs yet (still in installation stage)
Start Year 2019
Description Collaboration with Universidad Austral de Chile 
Organisation Austral University of Chile
Country Chile 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The Universidad Austral de Chile is a key LATAM partner in this work, receiving funding from CONICYT to lead new measurements of vegetation traits extending from Mediterranean evergreen forests in the north to wet Patagonian Nothofagus pumilio forests in the south. This is overseen by Project Co-Is Rocio Urrutia and Antonio Lara. The Chilean PDRA, Daniel Carvajal, was trained by a University of Leeds team to make measurements of key plant hydraulic and thermal traits.
Collaborator Contribution The collaboration with Chile has been very important for developing the field-based spectral capture of plant traits, led by the University of Oxford. Oxford Co-I Yadvinder Malhi and PDRA Jesus Aguirre-Gutierrez have visited Chile to take the drone-based multispectral reflectance data in various plots along the transect.
Impact No specific outputs yet
Start Year 2019
Description Collaboration with the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana 
Organisation Peruvian Amazon Research Institute
Country Peru 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution IIAP is a core Latin American Project partner in ARBOLES, receiving CONCYTEC funding to establish climate-conditioned greenhouses to test the sensitivity of commercially sensitive tree species to temperature and water stress. The experimental set-up in IIAP mimics that being set up in our study site in Nova Xavantina, Brazil. Leeds has provided important inputs into the design of the greenhouse and the temperature regulation system.
Collaborator Contribution IIAP partners (Jhon Aguilar, Nallaret Davila, Euridice Honorio) have coordinated the construction of the greenhouse (now in place) and are currently undertaking germination studies to decide on the species for the first round of warming experiments. IIAP will also lead the data collection within the Peruvian experiments.
Impact No outputs yet
Start Year 2019
Description Delivery of Climate Sensitivity workshop in Acre, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This workshop was run by a University of Leeds team (David Galbraith, Julia Tavares, Emma Docherty) at the Universidade Federal do Acre (UFAC), Brazil, in November 2019. At the workshop, postgraduate students were taught how to make key traits indicative of climate sensitivity (hydraulic and thermal traits), advanced analysis of trait data in R and the basics of ecosystem modelling with Python.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Live lecture to postgraduate students at the Universidade Federal do Pará 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This was a live lecture, streamed via youtube, on the carbon cycle of Amazon rainforests and its sensitivity to climate and land use change. The lecture was followed by a Q&A session where students from across Brazilian universities engaged with the discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020