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Concept: Tropical rainforest


Many major corporations and countries have made commitments to purchase or produce only “sustainable” palm oil, a commodity responsible for substantial tropical forest loss. Sustainability certification is the tool most used to fulfill these procurement policies, and around 20% of global palm oil production was certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2017. However, the effect of certification on deforestation in oil palm plantations remains unclear. Here, we use a comprehensive dataset of RSPO-certified and noncertified oil palm plantations (∼188,000 km2) in Indonesia, the leading producer of palm oil, as well as annual remotely sensed metrics of tree cover loss and fire occurrence, to evaluate the impact of certification on deforestation and fire from 2001 to 2015. While forest loss and fire continued after RSPO certification, certified palm oil was associated with reduced deforestation. Certification lowered deforestation by 33% from a counterfactual of 9.8 to 6.6% y-1 Nevertheless, most plantations contained little residual forest when they received certification. As a result, by 2015, certified areas held less than 1% of forests remaining within Indonesian oil palm plantations. Moreover, certification had no causal impact on forest loss in peatlands or active fire detection rates. Broader adoption of certification in forested regions, strict requirements to avoid all peat, and routine monitoring of clearly defined forest cover loss in certified and RSPO member-held plantations appear necessary if the RSPO is to yield conservation and climate benefits from reductions in tropical deforestation.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Forestry, Forest, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Palm oil, Oil palm


Understanding forest loss patterns in Amazonia, the Earth’s largest rainforest region, is critical for effective forest conservation and management. Following the most detailed analysis to date, spanning the entire Amazon and extending over a 14-year period (2001-2014), we reveal significant shifts in deforestation dynamics of Amazonian forests. Firstly, hotspots of Amazonian forest loss are moving away from the southern Brazilian Amazon to Peru and Bolivia. Secondly, while the number of new large forest clearings (>50 ha) has declined significantly over time (46%), the number of new small clearings (<1 ha) increased by 34% between 2001-2007 and 2008-2014. Thirdly, we find that small-scale low-density forest loss expanded markedly in geographical extent during 2008-2014. This shift presents an important and alarming new challenge for forest conservation, despite reductions in overall deforestation rates.

Concepts: Amazon River, Brazil, South America, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Amazon Basin, Deforestation, Amazon Rainforest


Gold mining has rapidly increased in western Amazonia, but the rates and ecological impacts of mining remain poorly known and potentially underestimated. We combined field surveys, airborne mapping, and high-resolution satellite imaging to assess road- and river-based gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon from 1999 to 2012. In this period, the geographic extent of gold mining increased 400%. The average annual rate of forest loss as a result of gold mining tripled in 2008 following the global economic recession, closely associated with increased gold prices. Small clandestine operations now comprise more than half of all gold mining activities throughout the region. These rates of gold mining are far higher than previous estimates that were based on traditional satellite mapping techniques. Our results prove that gold mining is growing more rapidly than previously thought, and that high-resolution monitoring approaches are required to accurately quantify human impacts on tropical forests.

Concepts: Amazon River, Tropical rainforest, Amazon Basin, Recession, Peru, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Madre de Dios Region, Peruvian Amazon


Several independent lines of evidence suggest that Amazon forests have provided a significant carbon sink service, and also that the Amazon carbon sink in intact, mature forests may now be threatened as a result of different processes. There has however been no work done to quantify non-land-use-change forest carbon fluxes on a national basis within Amazonia, or to place these national fluxes and their possible changes in the context of the major anthropogenic carbon fluxes in the region. Here we present a first attempt to interpret results from ground-based monitoring of mature forest carbon fluxes in a biogeographically, politically, and temporally differentiated way. Specifically, using results from a large long-term network of forest plots, we estimate the Amazon biomass carbon balance over the last three decades for the different regions and nine nations of Amazonia, and evaluate the magnitude and trajectory of these differentiated balances in relation to major national anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Concepts: Climate change, Amazon River, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Amazon Rainforest, Slash and burn, Peruvian Amazon


Knowledge about the biogeographic affinities of the world’s tropical forests helps to better understand regional differences in forest structure, diversity, composition, and dynamics. Such understanding will enable anticipation of region-specific responses to global environmental change. Modern phylogenies, in combination with broad coverage of species inventory data, now allow for global biogeographic analyses that take species evolutionary distance into account. Here we present a classification of the world’s tropical forests based on their phylogenetic similarity. We identify five principal floristic regions and their floristic relationships: (i) Indo-Pacific, (ii) Subtropical, (iii) African, (iv) American, and (v) Dry forests. Our results do not support the traditional neo- versus paleotropical forest division but instead separate the combined American and African forests from their Indo-Pacific counterparts. We also find indications for the existence of a global dry forest region, with representatives in America, Africa, Madagascar, and India. Additionally, a northern-hemisphere Subtropical forest region was identified with representatives in Asia and America, providing support for a link between Asian and American northern-hemisphere forests.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Forest, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Tropical rainforest, 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


Atmospheric carbon dioxide records indicate that the land surface has acted as a strong global carbon sink over recent decades, with a substantial fraction of this sink probably located in the tropics, particularly in the Amazon. Nevertheless, it is unclear how the terrestrial carbon sink will evolve as climate and atmospheric composition continue to change. Here we analyse the historical evolution of the biomass dynamics of the Amazon rainforest over three decades using a distributed network of 321 plots. While this analysis confirms that Amazon forests have acted as a long-term net biomass sink, we find a long-term decreasing trend of carbon accumulation. Rates of net increase in above-ground biomass declined by one-third during the past decade compared to the 1990s. This is a consequence of growth rate increases levelling off recently, while biomass mortality persistently increased throughout, leading to a shortening of carbon residence times. Potential drivers for the mortality increase include greater climate variability, and feedbacks of faster growth on mortality, resulting in shortened tree longevity. The observed decline of the Amazon sink diverges markedly from the recent increase in terrestrial carbon uptake at the global scale, and is contrary to expectations based on models.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Amazon River, Brazil, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Deforestation, Amazon Rainforest


Generalist microorganisms are the agents of many emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), but their natural life cycles are difficult to predict due to the multiplicity of potential hosts and environmental reservoirs. Among 250 known human EIDs, many have been traced to tropical rain forests and specifically freshwater aquatic systems, which act as an interface between microbe-rich sediments or substrates and terrestrial habitats. Along with the rapid urbanization of developing countries, population encroachment, deforestation, and land-use modifications are expected to increase the risk of EID outbreaks. We show that the freshwater food-web collapse driven by land-use change has a nonlinear effect on the abundance of preferential hosts of a generalist bacterial pathogen, Mycobacterium ulcerans. This leads to an increase of the pathogen within systems at certain levels of environmental disturbance. The complex link between aquatic, terrestrial, and EID processes highlights the potential importance of species community composition and structure and species life history traits in disease risk estimation and mapping. Mechanisms such as the one shown here are also central in predicting how human-induced environmental change, for example, deforestation and changes in land use, may drive emergence.

Concepts: Disease, Infectious disease, Microbiology, Infection, Infectious diseases, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical disease