How long does it take for logging roads to recover from clearance?

Roads are generally terrible for biodiversity. They fragment habitat, can increase habitat loss and hunting as a result of increased access, and cause direct loss of biodiversity as a result of collisions. However, not all roads are the same. Some are massive, permanent structures, while others are temporary, dirt tracks that may seemingly disappear once they fall into disuse.

One example of ephemeral roads is those that logging companies construct in tropical forests to provide access and transport of logs. There has long been concern that these roads can increase the risk of fires occurring, as well as increasing access for hunting, and other forms of forest exploitation. However, in a recent(ish) paper* has shown that some of the negative effects of logging roads are relatively transient.

In the paper, Fritz Kleinschroth and colleagues showed that in Central African forests, after 30 years of recovery logging roads had similar canopy cover, species diversity, and leaf litter to logged forests nearby* . However, the amount of carbon stored in the form of biomass lagged behind and was only 6% of that seen for logged forests after 30 years of recovery. At this rate, biomass recovery would take more than 300 years.This incredibly slow recovery at first appears puzzling, given that secondary forests, which have had almost all their trees cut down in the past and turned into agricultural fields, tend to take between 60-100 years to recover biomass to pre-disturbance levels (see here for a blog post and here for a recent paper on this). However, the probable cause of this delayed recovery is the compaction of soils on the roads by heavy vehicles which reduces seed germination and root growth***. Taken together the authors suggest these results indicate that logging roads have the potential to act as areas in which timber species could regenerate and that they may become inaccessible to hunters within 10 years.

So how does this study compare to similar ones carried out previously? Firstly, this study is a little different because it is one of the few that used chronosequences to assess recovery, and so the only study I know of which can assess longer-term dynamics on logging roads. However, other studies present a similar picture for the recovery of biomass and forest structure – forest canopy cover recovers relatively quickly (see here and here), but biomass and basal area lag behind (see here and here). The major difference between this study and previous ones is that it presents a more optimistic outlook of biodiversity. Previous studies have estimated that species richness may be 50-95% lower on abandoned logging roads when compared to logged forests (see here, here, and here). As such, the relatively fast recovery of species richness shown by Kleinschroth and colleagues appears to be outside of the norm, and further similar studies will be needed to see whether the pattern of recovery shown in this paper is an outlier. So we can’t really give a solid answer to the question posed in the title of this post – sorry about that.

While results vary from study to study it is obvious that more efforts need to be made to reduce the number of logging roads, their initial impacts to forests, and to help them recover once they are abandoned. In order to reduce the number of roads, reduced-impact logging could be used. This method, which I have been accused of disliking in the past, seems to be very successful in reducing the number of roads in logging concessions where it has been used (see here for an example of this). This is done by producing a plan for road construction prior to any trees being cut, rather than the ad-hoc approach often taken in conventional logging. Reducing the impact of roads could be done by limiting their width. Finally, improving recovery could be done by planting seedlings/saplings on former logging roads, as well as reducing access to roads.

One suggestion that the authors made in their paper that I really like is to re-use logging roads when forests are re-logged. Given that logging typically occurs every 30 years, this would allow some time for recovery of biodiversity on the roads but clearing them would reduce the damage caused by their construction spreading to other areas of the forest.

*I admit it, I’ve been terrible at keeping up with my reading recently.

**John Healy and Fritz have written a nice summary of their paper on the website “The Conversation” which is well worth a read.

***Anecdotal, I know, but I have seen similar things on restored salt marshes in the UK where diggers have been used to breach sea walls. At least for the ones I remember, this resulted in reduced vegetation cover.


Are we in danger of underestimating biodiversity loss?

Almost all ecological research of human impacts on biodiversity looks at changes after they have happened. To do this, researchers usually compare a site where some kind of disturbance has happened to a nearby undisturbed site. This method is called space-for-time substitution. The assumption of this approach is that the only thing that differs between sites is this disturbance. However, this assumption is often incorrect. Sites may have had very different biodiversity before any disturbances, which can lead to under- or over-estimations of biodiversity changes as a result of human impacts. One result of this is that we aren’t really sure how tropical logging alters the composition of ecological communities. These problems are likely to be particularly acute when habitat fragmentation limits dispersal to some sites.

Up until recently there had been little work comparing how the results from space-for-time methods compare to methods that compare sites before and after disturbances. However, last week an elegantly designed study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology which aimed to examine just this in the context of logging in Brazil. The paper aimed to compare space-for-time methods to before-after-control-impact (BACI) methods. Critically BACI studies measure biodiversity at sites at least once before the disturbance of interest takes place. Researchers then return to sites and remeasure them after the disturbance. Importantly both sites impacted by the disturbance and control sites are surveyed on both occasions. Using this method allows researchers to disentangle the effects of disturbances and any differences between sites prior to disturbance – a key advantage over space-for-time methods.

The paper by Filipe França and colleagues examined the differences in results obtained for space-for-time and BACI methods when looking at changes in dung beetle biodiversity in tropical logged forests in Brazil. To do this they surveyed 34 locations in a logging concession, 29 of which were subsequently logged at a variety of intensities. The intensity of logging (the number of trees/volume of wood removed per hectare) is a very important determinant of the impact of logging on biodiversity and carbon (see previous posts on this here and here). They then went back and re-surveyed these locations one year later. From the data collected, they calculated changes in species richness, community composition and total biomass of dung beetles.

Figure 1 – Differences between before-after-control-impact (BACI) approach and space-for-time substitution (SFT) for changes in dung beetle species richness, community composition, and biomass. For more details see Franca et al. (2016).

When comparing space-for-time and BACI the paper found that BACI characterised changes in biodiversity significantly better than space-for-time methods. Critically, space-for-time methods underestimated the relationship between logging intensity and biodiversity losses, with changes in species richness twice as severe as estimated by space-for-time (see Figure 1). BACI methods also consistently provided higher explanatory power and steeper slopes between logging intensity and biodiversity loss.

So what does this mean for how we do applied ecology? I think it is clear that we need to employ BACI methods more often in the future. However, BACI comes with logistical and financial constraints. Firstly, it is virtually impossible to predict where disturbances are going to happen before they occur. As a result, Franca and colleagues think that if we want to carry out more BACI research in the future, we need to develop closer ties with practitioners. This will involve building relationships with logging and oil palm companies, as well as agricultural businesses and property developers. This may make some researchers uncomfortable, but we need to do this if we are to provide robust evidence for decision makers. Secondly, BACI studies take longer to carry out, so we need to convince those that hold the purse strings that they are worth investing in.

BACI is clearly something we should be using more often but does this mean that space-for-time approach is useless? Should we even be using space-for-time methods at all? I’m not being hyperbolic just to get some attention- some have argued that we should stop using chronosequences altogether because ecological succession is unpredictable. After momentarily going into a bit a crisis about this when I read some papers on succession last year, I have come to a slightly different conclusion. Space-for-time substitution sometimes predicts temporal changes well, but sometimes it doesn’t. What we need is to work out when the use of space-for-time approaches are acceptable, and when it would be better to use temporal methods. Reviews have highlighted that as ecosystems increase in complexity space-for-time methods become less useful for monitoring changes in biodiversity. For example, large local species pools mean that post-disturbance colonisation may be very variable between sites. This problem is  compounded in fragmented landscapes where there are barriers to dispersal of seeds and animals. Every additional layer of complexity makes post-disturbance dynamics more and more difficult to predict. Ultimately, the best way to address this problem is through some kind of synthesis.

Working out when space-for-time approaches are useful and when they are not is not something we are going solve overnight. Before we can review the evidence, we need some evidence in the first place.  This is part of the reason why papers like the one by França and colleagues that I’ve discussed here are vitally important. So next time you think about designing a study see if you can assess how the results from temporal methods compare those from  space-for-time methods. The results might just take you by surprise.

Filipe França & Hannah Griffiths have written a great post on the Journal of Applied Ecology blog going into more detail about the implications of their study. I strongly recommend you give it a look.

“Like walking through an open cemetery”

“I have been working in human-modified tropical forests for the past 14 years, but seeing these fires first hand was devastating,” wrote Erika responding to one of my questions “The smell of wet soil was gone and I could only smell smoke…even the usual cacophony of forest sounds disappeared…it was like walking through an open cemetery.”

Erika de Berengeur Cesar, an up and coming Brazilian forest researcher, works at Lancaster University. For last two months, she has been slogging away in the field collecting data for her team’s project on human-modified forests. But this year hasn’t gone to plan. This isn’t a case of bad planning though, as with so may projects – 7 of her 20 sites had burned in some of the most widespread fires in recent times. After seeing her tweeting about this, I thought “I need to write something about this. It feels important.” So we fired a few tweets and emails back and forth, with Erika fitting answering my questions between her days in the field. After I had waited impatiently for a couple of days, Erika messaged me:

“Sorry, trying not to work weekends…not going very well though…Today I just learned that 9 of my 20 plots have burned.” 2 more plots. Aside from the wider situation, this was the stuff of researcher’s nightmares.

B260 T5 - Before and after the fire.1
Erika de Berengeur Cesar in one of her logged plots before it burned (top) and the same plot after recent fires (bottom). Photo courtesy of Erika.

Fires in Brazil reached record levels in 2015, with more than a quarter of a million separate fires recorded. However, these fires are not generally ‘natural’ – “Fires in the region always have a human ignition source.” Erika told me “They are used in slash-and-burn agriculture, to clear pastures of weeds and also to burn downed timber in newly deforested areas.” This year’s strong El Niño has caused drier conditions than normal making it “easier for agricultural fires to escape the targeted area and sweep through the forests.” Indonesia is facing a similar problem, where forests have been burned to clear space for new oil plantations, in what the Guardian’s George Monbiot  has described as the ‘greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far.’

When I queried why it matters that the forest is burning, Erika was clear what the major issue is – the loss of unique biodiversity. “Every year over 100 new species are found in Amazonian forests. To see all this going up in smoke is a crime against humanity. It is a tragedy.”

“How are these fires likely to affect biodiversity?” I asked.

“The Amazon has not co-evolved with periodic fires…This means that Amazonian forests are not used to these events and…do not cope very well with it. In terms of plant communities, there is a sharp increase in the abundance of pioneer species, while high-wood density climax species disappear….Fires negatively affect…rare bird species, and the habitat specialists, such as the ant-following insectivores and the terrestrial gleaners. Overall, burned forests are significantly less diverse than their unburned counterparts.”

Amazonian forests that have burned repeatedly may eventually come to resemble more open savannahs and contain  very different species to relatively undisturbed old-growth forest.

But it’s not just biodiversity that is affected by these fires, but humans as well. In Indonesia there were evacuations of children by the navy, although some of the children, according to reports, still died from breathing difficulties . In Brazil the fires have “affected many of the local people…who reported a number of respiratory problems, such as dry cough, difficulties in breathing, and sore throats,” according to Erika. “People had to spend days building fire breaks to protect their land, instead of directly working on their crops.” People working on these farms already have a tough life as it is, without having to worry if their source of income will go up in smoke.

So what will happen to these forests in the future? Given time and, vitally, protection they can recover but Erika thinks this is unlikely “These burned forests may never recover. After the fire, several large trees die, creating a number of gaps in the forest canopy, through which more light and wind can reach the forest floor, making it drier and, as a consequence, more vulnerable to further fire events.”

The research Erika and her team are carrying out will help to answer the question of how burned forests recover but it is obvious that degraded forests, such as these, need to be seen as a greater conservation priority. More than 50% of the globe’s forests are degraded in one way or another. We cannot afford to only protect primary forests anymore.

Edit: I got an email from Erika a bit ago after I asked her what the best solution would be. I thought I should include it here:

“Funnily enough there are already quite a few good policies in place. The problem is that none is followed. For example, every year there is a ‘burning calendar’ establishing when farmers can use fire to burn their pastures or their croplands. During the peak of the dry season, the use of fire is forbidden. In 2015, given the extreme drought, some states even extended the prohibitive period. So all quite reasonable and good, right? The problem is that no one follows this rules and there is no law enforcement in place. So people carry business as usual and the forests carry on burning. To put in practice the existing laws would be the best solution.”

If you want to read more about the situation in Brazil take a look at the excellent article Erika has written  for ‘The Conversation.’

There are also a pair of videos that Erika’s team have made documenting the fires that you can see here and here.

Is ecological succession predictable?

Over the last few years I have written quite a lot about forest succession. I have published a paper on the topic, have a paper in review about recovery of a forest under multiple stressors and will be starting more work on the it over the next few weeks. All in all, I think I have a reasonable idea what I’m talking about when it comes to succession, at least in forests. However, I’ve just read a paper on tropical forest succession that caught me a bit unawares*.

The paper in question is Natalia Norden and colleagues’ work that was recently published in PNAS. The authors collected data from 72 secondary forest plots monitored for 7-24 years at 7 different sites across tropical South and Central America. They then used this data to look whether we can predict trajectories plot stem density, basal area and species density during forest succession after total clearance. On the whole the paper found that trajectories were poorly predicted by models that looked at change as a function of forest age. From the figure below, you can pick some general trends in the direction of change with age – stem density might have a humped relationship with age for example. However, it is also clear that there is a huge amount of variation and some trajectories bounce around all over the place.

Observed successional trajectories of stem density, basal area and species density for the sites used by Norden et al.
Observed successional trajectories of stem density, basal area and species density for the sites used by Norden et al.

It’s obvious from looking at the figure above that the age of a secondary forest doesn’t really act as a proxy for its successional stage. In fact Norden and colleagues found that on average age only explains 20% of within site variation. Even if that is better than the average ecology paper, it’s still not very good. To explain the rates of change of different variables, Norden et al. fitted a set of different non-linear models for each site. Again, their findings emphasised the large amount of variation between different sites. Due to these idiosyncrasies, the authors of the paper see space-for-time substitution as a flawed method for predicting the dynamics of forests. They also suggest that such approaches should not be used for studies of succession of any sort of vegetation, arguing that previous work these methods has made succession appear as if it is deterministic, and it is not.

Now I’m not sure how the numbers of studies that use chronosequences vs monitoring over time to study succession stack up, but I’d be willing to be bet >80% of these papers use chronosequences, at least in forests. There are good reasons for using them: they take much less time than monitoring (especially in systems containing long-lived organisms), they are much less expensive, the logistics are less complex and as a result of all of these things, they are easier to get funded than a 10-20 year research programme. Norden et al.’s warning against using chronosequences based on their results, begs the question “Do we have other evidence of how well chronosequences perform?” The answer is that we do, and it doesn’t look too good for chronosequences. For example, Ted Feldpausch and colleagues found that space-for-time substitution resulted in overestimates of biomass accumulation for young secondary forests in the Amazon. Recently Mora and colleagues similarly suggested that chronosequences were poor predictors of forest characteristics.

So, is the chronosequence dead? Well, maybe not just yet. However, I think as researchers we need to be more circumspect about their use. In particular I think there are 4 questions that we need to answer to get a more well rounded view of the usefulness of chronosequences:

  1. How much variation in future dynamics do they actually predict? – Chronosequences are far from perfect, but it still offers us some insight into future dynamics. Mora et al. showed that chronosequences can still account for 32-57% of variance in future forest characteristics. There must be a reasonably large number of chronosequences that have been sampled more than once that could be used to test their predictive ability. We need more studies that address this head on. If it turns out that they are very poor at explaining future dynamics, then maybe it is time to switch to better methods.
  2. What variables do they predict most effectively? – Structural components of a system (biomass, stem density etc) should be easier to predict than community composition, since changes in structure are less likely to depend on idiosyncrasies such as the identity of initial colonising species. However, again, this has been tested relatively rarely.
  3. Do chronosequences have more predictive power in some systems than others? – Predictive power should be greatest when abiotic conditions are relatively constant across a landscape, disturbance history at all sites is relatively similar and in regions with relatively small species pools. Under all of these conditions there should be less chance of wildly different successional trajectories occurring.
  4. Where do animals fit into all this? – Predicting animal abundance and community composition is rarely studied in chronosequences, probably because their response to succession is that much less predictable than plant communities. Even though they are likely to perform relatively poorly, a comparison of the predictive ability of chronosequences for animal compared to plant communities would be interesting.

What do you think? Are there any other questions we need to answer to determine the value of chronosequences? Or do you have any views on the use of chronosequences in non-forest systems?

*To be fair, this probably shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, review papers have been suggesting that chronosequences are far from the best way to do things for a while. Although, there are also papers that suggest that careful use of chronosequences is perfectly ok.

Ecological degradation should be viewed as a GRADIENT not a TREATMENT

It’s a truth universally recognised that any good field ecologist is in search of a good control. Since most studies of human impact on ecosystems are ad hoc the history of control sites is often unknown and can lead to problems with interpretation, particularly in fields like invasion biology.

However it gets worse. Treatments in ecology are often not even really treatments.

In the lab most biologists can strictly control what each treatment constitutes (damn them) but in the field this is often not possible. As such there can be important differences in the treatment we are trying to characterise. This problem was already noted more than two decades ago by Michael Huston who stated that: “When an experimental manipulation has multiple components, but only one of them is identified as the experimental treatment, erroneous conclusions about cause and effect relationships are likely because the actual cause of any observed response may be ignored in the interpretation of the experimental results.”

Some work I have been doing during my thesis made me realise that this problem is actually still extremely common in certain ecological disciplines. I’ve noticed that work on logged forests and invasive species seem to be particularly prone to this (but I am certain that there are many other fields in which this regularly happens).

In studies of logging in tropical forest it is common to make a statistical comparison between logged and unlogged forests. However, not all logged plots are the same and there tends to be a very large variation in logging damage even in individual concessions. Despite this logging studies often analyse changes in forest characteristics using t-tests and lump together all logged forests as if they were the same. Doing this ignores lots of interesting and important variation that could be vital to management of tropical forests.

Similarly in studies of invasive plant species comparisons are commonly made between uninvaded and invaded ecosystems. However, again there is usually lots of variation regarding the degree  of invasion within individual sites. There has been lots written on different hypotheses regarding the impact of invasive species, one of which is that the impact is directly linked to the abundance/biomass of species. Simply by making comparisons between invaded and uninvaded ecosystems will not answer this question, we need to look at how impact varies with abundance. Addressing this question may give us some evidence on the degree to which invasive species are drivers or passengers of degradation – one of the most contentious questions in invasion biology.

The stupid thing is that these problems could be fixed relatively easily if we viewed these treatments as gradients of change. This allows a more nuanced interpretation of the potential impacts of humans on ecosystems changing the question from “Does impact x cause a change in y?” to “How does variable y change as impact x changes?” (Which Brian McGill wrote on over at Dynamic Ecology a while back).  This question is infinitely more interesting and more informative if we want ecology as a field to get better at prediction. Very few human impacts can truly be seen as a treatment  so we should stop treating them as if they were.

Forest regeneration provides cheap carbon and biodiversity benefits

First of all, hello again and apologies for my sporadic posting on here recently. I have now successfully defended my viva and have a few corrections to make but hopefully should be able to post on here a bit more regularly from now on.

One paper I read that really impressed me while on my hiatus from the blog was by my old commuting buddy James Gilroy and colleagues. This paper attempted to identify the potential biodiversity and carbon benefits of forest recovering in the Tropical Andes in Colombia, an area full of species found nowhere else many of which are under threat from agricultural conversion. The paper also attempted to look at the cost effectiveness of carbon payments for landowners who converted farmland to forest when compared to different land-use options like cattle farming.

Gilroy et al - Fig 1
Recovery of secondary forest carbon stock compared to that of pasture and primary forest (Taken from Gilroy et al. 2014)

I was actually quite surprised by what Gilroy and his team found. Their results suggested that carbon storage in recovering forests was fairly similar to that in mature forests in the area after around 30 years, much less than the 100 years or so that I estimated these stocks would take to recover in a previous study.

Gilroy et al - Fig 4

Gilroy et al - Fig 3
Relationships between carbon stocks and similarity of dung beetle and bird communities to primary forest communities (Taken from Gilroy et al. 2014)


More surprising still was that bird and dung beetle communities in the regenerating forests were fairly similar to those of mature forests, suggesting that they have high conservation value. Again previous studies have generally estimated that animal species that are forest specialists may take a long time to colonise secondary forests, and plants probably take even longer. The fast recovery times may be attributable to the relative closeness of recovering forest to intact forests in the study area, allowing immigration of  forest animals and increased likelihood of transportation of seeds from long lived tree species.

Gilroy et al - Fig 2
Relationship between the additional cost of undertaking forest regeneration and the price paid for carbon per tonne. The solid horizontal line shows where costs are equal to zero. This graph indicates that there are potentially net economic benefits for people undertaking forest regeneration projects when the carbon price is greater than $4 per tonne. (Taken from Gilroy et al. 2014)

More important than these findings though was the discovery that if forest regeneration schemes were implemented in the area, they could be more profitable to land-owners than current land-uses like cattle farming. This was true for all pastures in the area when carbon trading prices were greater than $4 per tonne of CO2 and given that the median price of carbon in 2013 was around $7.80 per tonne, paying for the carbon benefits of regeneration in these locations works out cheaply. This is the part that I thought was really neat, because all too often restoration schemes fail to account for the costs and benefits associated with such projects.

Given that the study area has fairly representative socioeconomic conditions to those found in the wider Colombian Andes, the results suggest that regeneration of cloud forest may provide a great opportunity for REDD+ carbon based conservation, which can deliver multiple environmental benefits at minimal cost. Though REDD+ has its critics it has the potential to transform forest conservation so we need to work hard to make sure it is done in the right way.

Looking to the past for insights into tropical forest resilience

A few weeks back Lydia Cole and colleagues published a really cool paper exploring recovery rates of tropical forests. Seeing as it’s something I’ve covered a here before in relation to my work on secondary forests recovering after agricultural clearance and recovery from selective logging, I invited Lydia to write a guest post giving a different perspective to a topic I have discussed here before. Thanks to Lydia for stepping up to the plate and I hope you find her post as interesting as I did.

Anyone reading this blog probably doesn’t need reminding of how important tropical forests are!  Birds, bees, berries and a whole load of other plants, animals and services that we probably underestimate our reliance on.  Despite the many arguments in favour of keeping tropical forests standing, vast areas continue to be deforested at rapid rates resulting in changes like that shown below (Fig 1), under pressures of expanding human population, rising consumption and the agricultural footprint to match (Geist & Lambin, 2002).

Fig 1 – Forest disturbance like logging can lead to forests such as this one in Borneo being converted from intact (left) to heavily degraded (right).

Disturbance and recovery in tropical forests Despite this widespread clearance as a result of  recent international forest conservation initiatives and rising rural-to-urban migration (Mather, 1992), some degraded tropical forests are being given a chance to recover.  But how long does it take them to recover?  Much recent research has attempted to answer this question (e.g. the great work of Chazdon et al., 2007) but little has monitored change over time scales of >50 years. Since many tropical trees have lifespans much longer than this previous studies have only captured a snap-shot of the ecological process of recovery.  In our study, we attempted to answer the question again; this time by looking into the past to gather data over longer time scales that could offer a more complete picture of forest recovery post disturbance.

The palaeoecological approach

Palaeoecology, otherwise known as long-term ecology, uses fossils to decipher how plants and animals interacted with their environment in the past.  Fossil pollen grains come in all shapes and sizes, and their morphological characteristics can be used to identify the plant family, genus or even the species to which they belong.  When a collection of these grains are identified and counted from a layer of sediment, we can reconstruct what the vegetation was like at that point in time when those grains were deposited. In our project, we were interested in studies that documented disturbance-induced changes in fossil pollen from forested communities across the Tropics, over the last 20,000 years.  Types of disturbances ranged from climatic drying events and landslides, to shifting cultivation and human-induced biomass burning.  We found 71 studies published on tropical forest palaeoecology that satisfied our selection criteria (e.g. within 23oN/S of the equator, possessing a sufficient chronology), documenting 283 disturbance and associated recovery events.  The rate at which recovery was occurring across the different forests and disturbance events was the key variable of interest and was calculated as the percentage increase in forest pollen abundance per year relative to the pre-disturbance level.

How far and how fast have tropical forests recovered in the past?

Our results demonstrate that in the past the majority of forests regrew to less than 100% of pre-disturbance levels, prior to declining again or reaching a new baseline; the median recovery was to 95.5%.  They also recovered at a variety of speeds, ranging from rates that would lead to 95.5% regrowth in less than 10 years to those taking nearly 7,000 years; the average was 503 years.  This is significantly longer than the periods adopted by logging companies between extraction cycles!

What affects the rate of recovery?

Three of the different factors we investigated for their potential effect on the forest recovery rate seemed to be of particular importance: geographical location, disturbance type and frequency of disturbance events. Of the four key tropical regions, Central American forests recovered the fastest and those in Asia the slowest (Figs. 2 & 3).  This is concerning, given that forests in Southeast Asia are currently experiencing some of the greatest rates of deforestation of all tropical regions, primarily due to the economic profitability of oil palm agriculture (check out mongabay for details).

Tropical forest recovery
Fig. 2  Map of tropical forest distribution, the location of studies and relative recovery rates across regions.

The most common form of disturbance, and one from which forest regrowth happened relatively slowly, was anthropogenic impact, i.e. via logging, burning and/or for agriculture (Fig. 3).  The slowest rates of recovery occurred after climatic disturbances and the fastest after large infrequent events, e.g. landslides, hurricanes and natural fire.  This latter result is somewhat intuitive given that these perturbations are a natural part of all ecosystems, leading to the evolution of a dynamic response in the native plant communities.  

Figure 3
Fig. 3  Composite figure showing how the recovery rate varies with different variables.

Insights into resilience

When we looked at the standardised rate of disturbance events (SRD), i.e. the number of disturbance events per 1,000 years, we found that the greater the frequency events occurred in the past, the more quickly the forest responded to each subsequent disturbance.  This runs counter to contemporary theories on resilience that describe slowing rates and diminishing ability to recover with each subsequent perturbation (e.g. Veraart et al., 2012).  Our results suggest that over ecologically meaningful timescales, i.e. over the life-span of entire forest communities rather than single trees, increased exposure results in adaptation to that disturbance over time, leading to a greater ability to recover quickly from the perturbation.

What does this all mean for tropical forests?

From looking back into the past, it seems that tropical forests can take a long time to recover from disturbances, and that different regions may require different management regimes to encourage more complete reforestation after natural or anthropogenic events, such as fire.  Central American and African forests may bounce back from impacts more quickly than the other regions, with disturbances such as tropical hurricanes and climatic fluctuations being a more common component of these ecosystems than in the other tropical regions.  However, all of the forests we looked at demonstrated a greater vulnerability to anthropogenic impacts and climatic changes than large infrequent disturbances: the two major forms of disturbance occurring today and at levels that far exceed those experienced over the past 20,000 years – reasons for caution.

Sustainable management

Identifying and understanding the different ecological requirements of forests across the different geographical regions, and of the forest-types within those regions, is vital for developing more sustainable landscape management plans.  With increasing international concern over deforestation rates, the associated loss of biodiversity and elevated carbon dioxide emissions, the conservation and restoration of tropical forests is becoming more politically and economically feasible.  Indonesia, for example, has introduced ‘ecosystem restoration concessions’ in the last decade, providing a legal means for forest protection from the further expansion of industrial agriculture.  And the potential of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (now REDD+) to save the World’s forests continues to generate international debate. Of importance to all of these programmes and initiatives, is the suggestion from our study that forests take time to recover, and if we give them that time, they will persist, and continue to provide their faunal inhabitants, including us, the greatest collection of biological riches on Earth.