Seeing the fruit for the trees in Borneo: responding to an unpredictable community-level fruiting event

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Inst of Biological and Environmental Sci


Southeast Asian tropical forests have been subjected to recent intense pressure due to selective logging and widespread clearance for Oil Palm cultivation. Consequently there is an emerging interest in restoring degraded forests using either natural regeneration or active restoration treatments. However, the reproductive biology of Southeast Asian tropical forest trees limits research on the effectiveness of these approaches, because most large canopy trees only flower and fruit very rarely. These sporadic mass reproductive events are responsible for establishing new cohorts of seedlings that grow up to become the next generation of adult canopy trees, and it is critical to discover whether the success of these episodic attempts at regeneration is as great in forests that have been degraded by logging as they are in primary forests, and whether the processes leading to seedling recruitment are restored effectively in forests where treatments such as tree planting and climber cutting have been applied. However, because these regeneration events occur so infrequently and unpredictably it is very difficult to incorporate them into the conventional planning cycle for research, despite the critical importance of the events that occur early in the life cycle of trees to future forests. In this project we will rapidly establish sampling sites in Sabah, Malaysia, where we know that a mass flowering of canopy trees was initiated in May 2019, for the first time since 2010. We aim to compare the amount and diversity of fruits and seedlings produced during this masting event in primary (undisturbed, unlogged) forests, and in adjacent forests that have been logged and either left to regenerate naturally or restored by planting tree seedlings and maintaining them for five years by climber cutting. Because the restoration of logged forests began more than 20 years ago, the original cohort of planted seedlings are now, in some cases, large canopy trees that may contribute seeds and seedlings for the first time during the reproductive event this year. We will also measure the expression of traits that determine how plants capture and use resources such as light and nutrients for the most common species that occur in each of the three types of forest, which will determine whether the community of seedlings that establish in the restored forests functions in a more similar way to that in the undisturbed primary forest than in the forests left to regenerate naturally after logging. A key focus on this study will be on species of the dominant family of canopy and emergent trees, the Dipterocarpaceae, which are targeted for logging. Logged forests possess a lower density of large reproductively mature dipterocarp individuals, and a key aim of restoration is to re-establish the dominance and diversity of this family by planting and maintaining dipterocarp seedlings. Dipterocarps possess an unusual trait for the tree flora of tropical forests, which is that they form mutualistic associations with root-colonising ectomycorrhizal fungi (ECM), whereas most other species in the forest form a different type of root association with arbuscular mycorrhizas (AM). Our recent research has shown that ECM seedlings benefit from proximity to a high density of ECM adults, possibly because they exchange resources through a common below-ground fungal network and because ECM species suppress root pathogens. In contrast, AM seedlings have lower survival when located close to a high density of adults of the same species. A final aim of our project is to test whether the beneficial effects of high adult density for ECM species is reduced in logged forests where the density of ECM adults is much lower, and whether these effects are offset by restoration. This research will therefore contribute results that are vital to understanding how Southeast Asian forests regenerate during masting events, and whether the negative effects of logging can be mitigated by restoration.

Planned Impact

This project will generate new insights on the natural regeneration potential of Asian tropical forests following masting, including results relevant to the restoration of the large tracts of degraded logged forests across Borneo. We will aim to engage with multiple non-academic stakeholders who may benefit from this work, through the provision of more effective information regarding the conservation and restoration of Southeast Asian forests. Our primary partnerships will be with organisations in Sabah, Malaysia, although we will also produce outputs and contribute to broader national and international dissemination where opportunities arise. The organisations who would benefit from this project include the following.
1. Forestry Departments. Dipterocarps dominate forests across Southeast. Forest Departments and local governments in collaboration with NGOs are looking for ways to restore highly degraded logged forests.
2. Many NGOs are promoting restoration or actively restore areas of rainforest across Southeast Asia, including Borneo Nature Foundation, WWF and Birdlife international. Existing and former NGO sponsored projects, such as the INFRAPRO project area which includes our study sites, are planting seedlings to restore biodiversity and carbon stocks.
3. Ecological investment companies. There is increasing interest in investing in tropical forest restoration for generating carbon credits that are sold on the voluntary carbon market. The value of such investments is determined by the rate of recovery of biomass and above-ground carbon, which is determined by the processes examined in this project.
4. Land managers, local reserve managers and botanists. Large tracts of land in Borneo are managed by oil-palm estate companies and logging concessions. This work will provide information that will help land managers maximise sustainability of their set-asides. We will engage with organisations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to help create standards to maximise the reproductive sustainability in mixed-use landscapes. Through improved understanding of impacts of mature tree removal on reproduction, this project will assist in the development of sustainable logging practices. The production of a seedling identification guide will also support local botanical efforts, contributing new resources to local herbaria.
5. Local communities. Much of the rural population of Sabah is living in relative poverty and reliant on the forest for essential resources, including food and fuel. This project will contribute important new information supporting the Sabah State Government to restore degraded community and state owned lands to enhance their productivity and value.
To engage with these stakeholder communities we plan the following activities.
1. Launch meeting with key partners, particularly the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) and the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS). We will aim to identify the key ways in which the proposed research could contribute to their on-going work and priorities.
2. We will work with external news networks with a large international readership, such as, to disseminate an accessible account of the masting event, its conservation implications and the results of our research. This project will also contribute new information and images to an online field guide to the tree seedlings of Sabah, which is designed to support future researchers requiring help with identification at our field sites.
3. During visits to Sabah UK team members will present seminars at local institutions such as SFD and UMS, and deliver a statistics workshop for local students.
4. We will deliver a Policy Paper that encapsulates the key messages from our research for practitioners.
5. We will attend the annual Heart of Borneo conference in 2020 to present our results to 500 delegates representing policy makers, academics, industry representatives and natural resource managers.


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Description Forest Research Centre Sepilok 
Organisation Forest Research Centre
Country Malaysia 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution We have engaged with the Forest Research Centre, which is part of the Sabah Forestry Department, for work on soil chemistry and collaboration on pot experiments involving tropical tree seedlings. Members of our research team have visited the centre, conducted training and implemented experiments in collaboration with local scientists.
Collaborator Contribution Staff at the Forest Research Centre have provided access to nursery space, laboratory infrastructure and advice on species and sites for research.
Impact 1. Data-sets on plant and soil chemistry. 2. Experiments on responses of tree seedlings to experimental P addition.3. Publications.
Start Year 2016