Tropical forests responses to a changing climate: a quest at the interface between trait-based ecology, forest dynamics and remote sensing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Environmental Change Institute SoGE


The most pressing questions in ecology and ecosystems science today focus on how communities of organisms respond to global environmental changes. How is biodiversity affected by climate change? And, how does biodiversity influence ecosystem resilience to climate change? In terms of Earth system science, we need to understand and model how the terrestrial biosphere will respond (and already is responding) to atmospheric change, and whether there are dangerous thresholds or "tipping points" beyond which major biomes may not be able to recover.

Nowhere is the challenge more urgent or more daunting than in the species-rich tropical forest and woody savanna biomes, which together are home to more than 50% of global diversity and over 60% of terrestrial productivity2. There is already mounting evidence that atmospheric change is having an effect on tropical forest productivity and tree composition3. This response may include a stimulation of productivity (caused perhaps through rising CO2), and/ or a degradation or dieback, caused perhaps by increased seasonality and increased frequency of extreme drought events, such as the two "once-a-century" droughts experienced by Amazonia in 2005 and 2010, and the intense El Niño-associated drought of 2015 that affected many tropical regions worldwide. However, we cannot adequately understand or simulate such responses with current ecosystem model approaches that cannot capture the high diversity and the quasi-continuum nature of plant ecosystem function in the species-rich tropics. Neglect of functional biodiversity can greatly oversimplify and over-sensitise the simulated response of an ecosystem to an environmental disturbance.

Some of the key challenges we face revolve around how can we track changes in the species composition and function of tropical ecosystems as they respond to global change. The use of plant functional traits provides a potential way forward by simplifying tropical biodiversity into a few key axes of functional variation.

This project will conduct the first analysis of long term functional change in intact tropical forests and woody savannas. Firstly, it will explore how tree communities and their functional characteristics have shifted over time under a changing climate, by combining long-term forest inventory data form across the tropics with newly collected and collated data on tropical tree functional traits. It will also examine how the patterns of traits shifts vary across bioclimatic regions, which encompass different elevation, latitude and climatic conditions, to gain greater insight into how soils and past climate variation influence current sensitivity to climate change. Next it will examine whether the associated shifts in ecosystem species composition are sufficiently rapid to keep pace with the observed rates of climate change. Finally, it will explore the potential of monitor trait patterns at scale through the use of the newest generation of satellite multispectral data from the European Space Agency Sentinel-2 Copernicus mission.

This project will bring a step-change in i) our understanding of how climatic changes drive traits distributions, ii) our ability to predict functional trait composition by remote sensing, iii) will impact the way how we track the progress towards, an inform sections of, international policy such as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (Goal A and C), Sustainable Development Goals (combating climate change and its impacts), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and iv) will foster a transition from a descriptive to a more predictive trait ecology.

Planned Impact

I have a strong track record in involving local researchers and students in our field work, and encouraging them to use data collections to publish dissertations, and local and international papers. Many tropical countries still have only a few scientists with the skills and confidence to publish papers in international standard journals. Within this project I will run explicitly funded ecological data analysis including remote sensing training workshops at the start of field campaigns in Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Peru, Ghana and Gabon. Through my past to present research, I have a long-term record of building capacity with partner institutes, assisting students to find graduate positions in a variety of countries and giving them ready access to data and assistance with analysis.

I will produce videos demonstrating step-by-step the process followed to obtain the final datasets as maps and spatially explicit models planned in this project. These videos will be shared online through a dedicated YouTube channel. The videos will be specially focused on statistical and spatial data analysis (e.g. for the the multispectral Sentinel-2 data handling) and manipulation. Such video tutorials will be useful for bachelor, master and early PhD students working in the fields of ecology and remote sensing

-Schools and the general public seeking to understand and be motivated by modern tropical forest science
There is a need to motivate and engage schoolchildren about the importance of forests and environmental science, as well as a demand from the wider public for access to the latest science. Tropical forests are particularly appealing and exciting, and multispectral images of forest canopies offer an entryway to explain concepts such as forest structure and composition. I will create online resources to foster science communication (social network, webpages) as well as we will visit primary schools in Oxfordshire to present my work.

-The scientific community engaged in understanding tropical forest ecology and function, and its sensitivity to environmental change. The scientific beneficiaries have been outlined in the academic beneficiaries section.

-Local, national and International non-governmental organizations.
I will apply to the Rainforest's Alliance "Innovative Fund Projects - Climate Change Resilience" so that the outcomes of this project are incorporated in their broader forest conservation research agenda. I will further liaise and connect with the work of key environmental organisations such as WWF, Nature Conservancy and EarthWatch by directly sharing the data generated and looking for opportunities to distribute the outputs and add value to their policy influencing and education activities.

-Local Government Agencies.
I will establish through our network of Project Partners direct contact with these agencies and share the data generated from this project. I have a long-term collaboration with CONABIO (Mexico) and the Lankaster botanical garden in Costa Rica, and project collaborators have a long-term track record of direct relationship with government agencies across the world. Some of these agencies are already project partners in this proposal, e.g. CIFOR in Ghana. Through this research I will be in direct communication with these agencies and seek collaboration and dissemination of results.

This fellowship will have societal impact by: informaing into global environmental change effects on tropical ecosystems, highlighting which tropical forests across regions are most susceptible to environmental change effects and thus providing a basis for prioritising the conservation policy. Moreover, this fellowship will inform about main drivers of functional changes, so that regional impacts can be better predicted and adaptation and conservation action target those drivers of change. Lastly, it will allow regional decision making on areas for conservation and facilitate progress tracking of policy goals.


10 25 50
Description GIS and Remote Sensing application for Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description John Fell Fund
Amount £39,900 (GBP)
Funding ID 0010667 
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2021 
End 08/2023
Title Method to map plant functional traits form space 
Description We produced a methodology to map plant functional traits related to the plants morphology, photosynthesis and leaf chemistry, using satellite remote sensing data form the Sentinel-2 satellite from the European Space Agency. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The resulting plant functional trait maps can be used to feed Global Vegetation Models that up to know only take very coarse information on plant functional types. Our methodology can also potentially help improve our understanding on the distribution of plant functional traits across the tropics and on their resilience. 
Title Pantropical modelling of canopy functional traits using Sentinel-2 remote sensing data 
Description We created a method to model and map plant functional traits across the tropics using satellite remote sensing: 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact With this methodology we are building maps showing the distribution of plant traits across tropical forests which can improve our understanding on the resilience of tropical forest to climate change. 
Description Colombian forests 
Organisation Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute
Country Colombia 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We collected information of vegetation censuses and spectral and soil information in other Latin American country such as Mexico, which will be available to the Colombian team for their own analysis when requested.
Collaborator Contribution The gathered vegetation and plant functional traits data for our ongoing collaboration and research, which has resulted up to now in one manuscript accepted by Nature Ecology and Evolution: 'Functional susceptibility of tropical forests to climate change'. We are already planning fieldwork in their tropical forests plots to further collect spectral, structural and soil information.
Impact One manuscript accepted by Nature Ecology and Evolution: 'Functional susceptibility of tropical forests to climate change'.
Start Year 2021
Description MONAFOR: Mexican forests collaboration 
Organisation Juarez University of the State of Durango
Country Mexico 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I brought the expertise of the ecology and remote sensing to the group. We visited the vegetation plots in tropical Mexico where I gathered spectral, structural and soil data for analysis. The collaborators are thus part of the research and of the outcomes such as research papers.
Collaborator Contribution The partners helped with field assistants to make remeasurements in core long-term vegetation plots across tropical forests in central-west and southern Mexico. I am using the the information from those plots is my current analysis.
Impact Thanks to this partnership I have gathered information on vegetation censuses, spectral, structural, soil data for 15 vegetation plots in Mexico, which was not previously available. Another tangible outcome is the acceptance of our paper entitled ' Functional susceptibility of tropical forests to climate change' by Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Start Year 2021
Description Mapping forest canopy functional traits in Panama 
Organisation University of Illinois
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are constructing spatial distribution models of plant functional traits for forest ecosystems in Panama using the plot census and plant traits data from our partner Prof. James Dalling from the University of Illinois and the Smithsonian Institute in Panama.
Collaborator Contribution The partner contributed with plant census data and with plant traits data that they have collected across their 11 vegetation plots in the Fortuna Nature Reserve in Panama. This contribution has been also used already to map forest resilience to environmental change across tropical forests.
Impact We have a recent publication in which we used their plot and traits data: Aguirre-Gutiérrez, Jesús, et al. "Functional susceptibility of tropical forests to climate change." Nature Ecology & Evolution 6.7 (2022): 878-889.
Start Year 2022
Description Naturalis Biodiversity Center -Soils sequencing 
Organisation Naturalis Biodiversity Center
Country Netherlands 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I am collecting soil data from our vegetation plots across the tropics to sequence them and obtain information about the soil biota characteristics in tropical forests.
Collaborator Contribution They are in charge of carrying out the soil sequencing for fungi and bacteria and gathering the results.
Impact We are still working on the soil collection and sequencing. We expect the first results to come out during June-July 2022 and have a research manuscript about the relationship between soil biota, plant functional traits and forest resilience by the end of the year 2022.
Start Year 2021
Description Choosing my research career after high school 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I gave a talk to highschool students about different study/research paths after high school in Mexico. I shared with them my current research financed by NERC and how I got to this point in my research career. This talk sparkled debate about research paths and brought about questions from the students on how to decide what ti study.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Functional susceptibility of tropical forests to global environmental change 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact About 15 researchers and students attended the talk. After the talk we discussed my work for about 30 minutes, which lead to further conversations about further application of my work to other locations. I also had a one-to-one conversation about the work presented with a PhD student representative.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
Description Research visit Ghana 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact About 50 people attended the research talk at the KNUST University in Kumassi Ghana. During the talk we discussed the effects of a changing climate in the tropical forests of West Africa. This research talk brought about more interest in this subject area with other researcher from KNUST with whom I am now participating in the writing of a new research proposal about forest conservation in tropical Ghana.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022