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Concept: Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


Tropical forests are global centres of biodiversity and carbon storage. Many tropical countries aspire to protect forest to fulfil biodiversity and climate mitigation policy targets, but the conservation strategies needed to achieve these two functions depend critically on the tropical forest tree diversity-carbon storage relationship. Assessing this relationship is challenging due to the scarcity of inventories where carbon stocks in aboveground biomass and species identifications have been simultaneously and robustly quantified. Here, we compile a unique pan-tropical dataset of 360 plots located in structurally intact old-growth closed-canopy forest, surveyed using standardised methods, allowing a multi-scale evaluation of diversity-carbon relationships in tropical forests. Diversity-carbon relationships among all plots at 1 ha scale across the tropics are absent, and within continents are either weak (Asia) or absent (Amazonia, Africa). A weak positive relationship is detectable within 1 ha plots, indicating that diversity effects in tropical forests may be scale dependent. The absence of clear diversity-carbon relationships at scales relevant to conservation planning means that carbon-centred conservation strategies will inevitably miss many high diversity ecosystems. As tropical forests can have any combination of tree diversity and carbon stocks both require explicit consideration when optimising policies to manage tropical carbon and biodiversity.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Tropics, Ecosystem, Forest, Tropical rainforest, Biome, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


The carbon balance of tropical ecosystems remains uncertain, with top-down atmospheric studies suggesting an overall sink and bottom-up ecological approaches indicating a modest net source. Here we use 12 years (2003-2014) of MODIS pantropical satellite data to quantify net annual changes in the aboveground carbon density of tropical woody live vegetation, providing direct, measurement-based evidence that the world’s tropical forests are a net carbon source of 425.2 ± 92.0 Tg C yr(-1) This net release of carbon consists of losses of 861.7 ± 80.2 Tg C yr(-1) and gains of 436.5 ± 31.0 Tg C yr(-1) Gains result from forest growth; losses result from deforestation and from reductions in carbon density within standing forests (degradation/disturbance), with the latter accounting for 68.9% of overall losses.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Tropics, Ecosystem, Forest, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Biome, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


Tropical forests are the global cornerstone of biological diversity, and store 55% of the forest carbon stock globally, yet sustained provisioning of these forest ecosystem services may be threatened by hunting-induced extinctions of plant-animal mutualisms that maintain long-term forest dynamics. Large-bodied Atelinae primates and tapirs in particular offer nonredundant seed-dispersal services for many large-seeded Neotropical tree species, which on average have higher wood density than smaller-seeded and wind-dispersed trees. We used field data and models to project the spatial impact of hunting on large primates by ∼1 million rural households throughout the Brazilian Amazon. We then used a unique baseline dataset on 2,345 1-ha tree plots arrayed across the Brazilian Amazon to model changes in aboveground forest biomass under different scenarios of hunting-induced large-bodied frugivore extirpation. We project that defaunation of the most harvest-sensitive species will lead to losses in aboveground biomass of between 2.5-5.8% on average, with some losses as high as 26.5-37.8%. These findings highlight an urgent need to manage the sustainability of game hunting in both protected and unprotected tropical forests, and place full biodiversity integrity, including populations of large frugivorous vertebrates, firmly in the agenda of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) programs.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Ecosystem, Forest, Brazil, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


Regulatory enforcement of forest conservation laws is often dismissed as an ineffective approach to reducing tropical forest loss. Yet, effective enforcement is often a precondition for alternative conservation measures, such as payments for environmental services, to achieve desired outcomes. Fair and efficient policies to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) will thus crucially depend on understanding the determinants and requirements of enforcement effectiveness. Among potential REDD candidate countries, Brazil is considered to possess the most advanced deforestation monitoring and enforcement infrastructure. This study explores a unique dataset of over 15 thousand point coordinates of enforcement missions in the Brazilian Amazon during 2009 and 2010, after major reductions of deforestation in the region. We study whether local deforestation patterns have been affected by field-based enforcement and to what extent these effects vary across administrative boundaries. Spatial matching and regression techniques are applied at different spatial resolutions. We find that field-based enforcement operations have not been universally effective in deterring deforestation during our observation period. Inspections have been most effective in reducing large-scale deforestation in the states of Mato Grosso and Pará, where average conservation effects were 4.0 and 9.9 hectares per inspection, respectively. Despite regional and actor-specific heterogeneity in inspection effectiveness, field-based law enforcement is highly cost-effective on average and might be enhanced by closer collaboration between national and state-level authorities.

Concepts: Effect, Effectiveness, Forest, Brazil, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Mato Grosso, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


Concerted political attention has focused on reducing deforestation, and this remains the cornerstone of most biodiversity conservation strategies. However, maintaining forest cover may not reduce anthropogenic forest disturbances, which are rarely considered in conservation programmes. These disturbances occur both within forests, including selective logging and wildfires, and at the landscape level, through edge, area and isolation effects. Until now, the combined effect of anthropogenic disturbance on the conservation value of remnant primary forests has remained unknown, making it impossible to assess the relative importance of forest disturbance and forest loss. Here we address these knowledge gaps using a large data set of plants, birds and dung beetles (1,538, 460 and 156 species, respectively) sampled in 36 catchments in the Brazilian state of Pará. Catchments retaining more than 69-80% forest cover lost more conservation value from disturbance than from forest loss. For example, a 20% loss of primary forest, the maximum level of deforestation allowed on Amazonian properties under Brazil’s Forest Code, resulted in a 39-54% loss of conservation value: 96-171% more than expected without considering disturbance effects. We extrapolated the disturbance-mediated loss of conservation value throughout Pará, which covers 25% of the Brazilian Amazon. Although disturbed forests retained considerable conservation value compared with deforested areas, the toll of disturbance outside Pará’s strictly protected areas is equivalent to the loss of 92,000-139,000 km(2) of primary forest. Even this lowest estimate is greater than the area deforested across the entire Brazilian Amazon between 2006 and 2015 (ref. 10). Species distribution models showed that both landscape and within-forest disturbances contributed to biodiversity loss, with the greatest negative effects on species of high conservation and functional value. These results demonstrate an urgent need for policy interventions that go beyond the maintenance of forest cover to safeguard the hyper-diversity of tropical forest ecosystems.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Forest, Brazil, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Deforestation, Secondary forest


Although forest succession has traditionally been approached as a deterministic process, successional trajectories of vegetation change vary widely, even among nearby stands with similar environmental conditions and disturbance histories. Here, we provide the first attempt, to our knowledge, to quantify predictability and uncertainty during succession based on the most extensive long-term datasets ever assembled for Neotropical forests. We develop a novel approach that integrates deterministic and stochastic components into different candidate models describing the dynamical interactions among three widely used and interrelated forest attributes-stem density, basal area, and species density. Within each of the seven study sites, successional trajectories were highly idiosyncratic, even when controlling for prior land use, environment, and initial conditions in these attributes. Plot factors were far more important than stand age in explaining successional trajectories. For each site, the best-fit model was able to capture the complete set of time series in certain attributes only when both the deterministic and stochastic components were set to similar magnitudes. Surprisingly, predictability of stem density, basal area, and species density did not show consistent trends across attributes, study sites, or land use history, and was independent of plot size and time series length. The model developed here represents the best approach, to date, for characterizing autogenic successional dynamics and demonstrates the low predictability of successional trajectories. These high levels of uncertainty suggest that the impacts of allogenic factors on rates of change during tropical forest succession are far more pervasive than previously thought, challenging the way ecologists view and investigate forest regeneration.

Concepts: Forest, Das Model, Uncertainty, Vegetation, Tropical rainforest, Ecological succession, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


The degree to which terrestrial vertebrate populations are depleted in tropical forests occupied by human communities has been the subject of an intense polarising debate that has important conservation implications. Conservation ecologists and practitioners are divided over the extent to which community-based subsistence offtake is compatible with ecologically functional populations of tropical forest game species. To quantify depletion envelopes of forest vertebrates around human communities, we deployed a total of 383 camera trap stations and 78 quantitative interviews to survey the peri-community areas controlled by 60 semi-subsistence communities over a combined area of over 3.2 million hectares in the Médio Juruá and Uatumã regions of Central-Western Brazilian Amazonia. Our results largely conform with prior evidence that hunting large-bodied vertebrates reduces wildlife populations near settlements, such that they are only found at a distance to settlements where they are hunted less frequently. Camera trap data suggest that a select few harvest-sensitive species, including lowland tapir, are either repelled or depleted by human communities. Nocturnal and cathemeral species were detected relatively more frequently in disturbed areas close to communities, but individual species did not necessarily shift their activity patterns. Group biomass of all species was depressed in the wider neighbourhood of urban areas rather than communities. Interview data suggest that species traits, especially group size and body mass, mediate these relationships. Large-bodied, large-group-living species are detected farther from communities as reported by experienced informants. Long-established communities in our study regions have not “emptied” the surrounding forest. Low human population density and low hunting offtake due to abundant sources of alternative aquatic protein, suggest that these communities represent a best-case scenario for sustainable hunting of wildlife for food, thereby providing a conservative assessment of game depletion. Given this ‘best-case’ camera trap and interview-based evidence for hunting depletion, regions with higher human population densities, external trade in wildlife and limited access to alternative protein will likely exhibit more severe depletion.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Earth, Population density, Forest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


Throughout human history, slow-renewal biological resource populations have been predictably overexploited, often to the point of economic extinction. We assess whether and how this has occurred with timber resources in the Brazilian Amazon. The asynchronous advance of industrial-scale logging frontiers has left regional-scale forest landscapes with varying histories of logging. Initial harvests in unlogged forests can be highly selective, targeting slow-growing, high-grade, shade-tolerant hardwood species, while later harvests tend to focus on fast-growing, light-wooded, long-lived pioneer trees. Brazil accounts for 85% of all native neotropical forest roundlog production, and the State of Pará for almost half of all timber production in Brazilian Amazonia, the largest old-growth tropical timber reserve controlled by any country. Yet the degree to which timber harvests beyond the first-cut can be financially profitable or demographically sustainable remains poorly understood. Here, we use data on legally planned logging of ~17.3 million cubic meters of timber across 314 species extracted from 824 authorized harvest areas in private and community-owned forests, 446 of which reported volumetric composition data by timber species. We document patterns of timber extraction by volume, species composition, and monetary value along aging eastern Amazonian logging frontiers, which are then explained on the basis of historical and environmental variables. Generalized linear models indicate that relatively recent logging operations farthest from heavy-traffic roads are the most selective, concentrating gross revenues on few high-value species. We find no evidence that the post-logging timber species composition and total value of forest stands recovers beyond the first-cut, suggesting that the commercially most valuable timber species become predictably rare or economically extinct in old logging frontiers. In avoiding even more destructive land-use patterns, managing yields of selectively-logged forests is crucial for the long-term integrity of forest biodiversity and financial viability of local industries. The logging history of eastern Amazonian old-growth forests likely mirrors unsustainable patterns of timber depletion over time in Brazil and other tropical countries.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Value, Brazil, Rainforest, Amazon Basin, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Amazon Rainforest


Tropical forest fragmentation creates insular biological communities that undergo species loss and changes in community composition over time, due to area- and edge-effects. Woody lianas thrive in degraded and secondary forests, due to their competitive advantage over trees in these habitats. Lianas compete both directly and indirectly with trees, increasing tree mortality and turnover. Despite our growing understanding of liana-tree dynamics, we lack detailed knowledge of the assemblage-level responses of lianas themselves to fragmentation, particularly in evergreen tropical forests. We examine the responses of both sapling and mature liana communities to landscape-scale forest insularization induced by a mega hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon. Detailed field inventories were conducted on islands created during reservoir filling, and in nearby mainland continuous forest. We assess the relative importance of variables associated with habitat fragmentation such as area, isolation, surrounding forest cover, fire and wind disturbance, on liana community attributes including abundance, basal area, diversity, and composition. We also explore patterns of liana dominance relative to tree saplings and adults ≥10 cm diameter at breast height. We find that 1) liana community composition remains remarkably similar across mainland continuous forest and islands, regardless of extreme area- and edge- effects and the loss of vertebrate dispersers in the latter; and 2) lianas are increasing in dominance relative to trees in the sapling layer in the most degraded islands, with both the amount of forest cover surrounding islands and fire disturbance history predicting liana dominance. Our data suggest that liana communities persist intact in isolated forests, regardless of extreme area- and edge-effects; while in contrast, tree communities simultaneously show evidence of increased turnover and supressed recruitment. These processes may lead to lianas becoming a dominant component of this dam-induced fragmented landscape in the future, due to their competitive advantage over trees in degraded forest habitats. Additional loss of tree biomass and diversity brought about through competition with lianas, and the concurrent loss of carbon storage, should be accounted for in impact assessments of future dam development.

Concepts: Forest, Tree, Plant morphology, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Trees of the world, Woody plant


The quantification of tropical tree biodiversity worldwide remains an open and challenging problem. More than two-fifths of the number of worldwide trees can be found either in tropical or in subtropical forests, but only ≈0.000067% of species identities are known. We introduce an analytical framework that provides robust and accurate estimates of species richness and abundances in biodiversity-rich ecosystems, as confirmed by tests performed on both in silico-generated and real forests. Our analysis shows that the approach outperforms other methods. In particular, we find that upscaling methods based on the log-series species distribution systematically overestimate the number of species and abundances of the rare species. We finally apply our new framework on 15 empirical tropical forest plots and quantify the minimum percentage cover that should be sampled to achieve a given average confidence interval in the upscaled estimate of biodiversity. Our theoretical framework confirms that the forests studied are comprised of a large number of rare or hyper-rare species. This is a signature of critical-like behavior of species-rich ecosystems and can provide a buffer against extinction.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Mathematics, Ecology, Endangered species, Forest, Tropical rainforest, Biome, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests