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Legacies of tropical forest fragmentation and regeneration for biodiversity and carbon storage.

University of Stirling

Jones, I. L. 


University of Stirling

Expanding anthropogenic development within the tropical forest biome is driving the loss of an irreplaceable global resource. Mega-diverse tropical forests are vital for regulating the global carbon cycle, and are essential for climate change mitigation. Today, over half of the world’s remaining tropical forest is degraded or regenerating secondary forest. Tropical forests are becoming increasingly fragmented through the expansion of agriculture and roads. Landscape-scale flooding of terrestrial habitats caused by dam construction is an emerging driver of habitat loss and fragmentation. Much attention has been paid to the long-term impacts of tropical forest fragmentation for biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and carbon emissions. Most of our understanding of the impacts associated with habitat fragmentation originates from systems in which the habitat matrix surrounding remnant forest patches is another, albeit low quality, terrestrial habitat. However, dam-induced habitat fragmentation results in remnant terrestrial biological communities becoming isolated on islands within a water matrix. A water matrix presents the worst-case scenario for remnant habitat fragments. In Chapter 2 I synthesise the results of numerous studies reporting the responses of taxonomic groups to isolation on reservoir land-bridge islands, and uncover a globally-applicable pattern of extinction debt acting upon remnant biological communities on reservoir islands. All islands, regardless of taxonomic group, habitat type, or island area lose species as island isolation time increases. Moreover, I show that contrary to existing ecological theory, once terrestrial habitat becomes isolated within a water matrix, it is effectively too isolated for species losses to be buffered by metapopulation dynamics. Dam development is rapidly expanding in the largest remaining tract of intact tropical forest, the Amazon Basin. In Chapters 3 and 4 I study the Balbina mega-dam system in the central Brazilian Amazon. Here, I use detailed field inventories of trees and lianas on islands and in continuous mainland habitat to determine the impact of landscape-scale habitat fragmentation caused by reservoir creation on these taxonomic groups. I find that islands maintain tree communities at significantly lower densities, richness and diversity compared to continuous forest. Furthermore, tree communities on islands exhibit compositional divergence from those found in mainland continuous forest. Island tree assemblages are dominated by low-wood density species, and may be on a trajectory towards communities characteristic of early successional forests with reduced carbon storage capacity. In contrast, liana assemblages remain compositionally intact and are becoming increasingly dominant relative to trees. Thus, lianas appear robust to many of the negative impacts associated with landscape-scale habitat fragmentation. As insular tree communities continue to degrade through area- and edge-effects, lianas may become a key feature of this archipelagic landscape due to their competitive advantage over trees in disturbed forest habitats. Lianas significantly inhibit tree recruitment and carbon storage. Thus, findings from Chapters 3 and 4 provide strong evidence for additional, and currently unaccounted-for biodiversity and carbon impacts associated with tropical dams. As development of tropical forest regions increases, there is an urgent need to reconcile the need for resources with the need for ecosystem service provision, such as carbon storage, particularly as we attempt to mitigate the impacts of rising atmospheric carbon. Recent studies have shown that secondary tropical forests have the potential to rapidly uptake atmospheric carbon, and act as a powerful tool in climate change mitigation policy. Broad-scale estimates of secondary forest carbon uptake are currently based on above-ground biomass alone. In Chapter 5 I present carbon stock estimates of additional tropical forest carbon pools - soil and dead woody biomass - in secondary forests ranging from 40-120 years. I find that soil fertility (nitrogen concentration) is key in determining carbon storage in secondary forests, and that the stability of carbon stocks held in dead woody biomass increases with secondary forest stand age. I highlight the need to integrate detailed site-specific information into broad-scale predictive models of secondary tropical forest carbon sequestration. This thesis links ecological theory and landscape-scale field inventories, to provide new understanding of the long-term costs of tropical forest fragmentation for biodiversity conservation and carbon storage, and provides further evidence of the important role secondary tropical forests may play in carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation.


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