October 19, 2009

CTFS at the 94th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America

by Beth King

For the first time, researchers from tropical forests in the Americas, Asia, and Africa and those from temperate forests in China, Canada, and the US met to map the future for CTFS. Network researchers presented more than 60 talks and posters at the 2009 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, held in  Albuquerque, NM, August 2-7. Click here to read an ESA Bulletin report on the CTFS talks.

The strength of the network lies in the use of a single method to track forest dynamics. Stephen P. Hubbell, who co-founded the first large-scale long-term forest dynamics monitoring plot on Barro Colorado Island in 1979, was presented with ESA’s Eminent Ecologist Award. Hubbell is best known for developing the Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography, the first testable explanation for the diversity of tropical forests.

Hubbell described the Neutral Theory as “not dead yet, but definitely moribund,” and proposed a new idea —the Enemy Susceptibility Hypothesis—to explain commonness and rarity in tropical tree species.

Scott Mangan, working on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, presented information at this meeting that something in soils— perhaps fungal pathogens—mediate the distribution of forest trees.

Richard Condit, staff scientist at STRI, can accurately predict the spatial distribution of trees in the plots based on colonization and extinction information. He thinks that the high diversity of individual forests results from ongoing species arrival from a much larger community, not from local niche differences. Local patterns of diversity may be driven by niche differences across continents and long time scales.

Network researchers are focusing outward, looking for processes on large, landscape scales, something that is only possible because the plots in the network are big and comparisons between them are possible. Forest experts at each site have intimate knowledge of local on-the-ground processes and can quickly say whether global models make sense.

Long-term studies show that forests change extremely rapidly in response to factors as diverse as rainfall and wind patterns, elephant damage, and leaf-eating mites. Data from Wisconsin and Ontario show that temperate forests exhibit many of the same biological properties as tropical forests.

Forests are responsible for about half of the carbon absorbed by all land plants. It is therefore vital to know what trees do when atmospheric carbon skyrockets past levels that forests have experienced over the past 400,000 years.

STRI’s Helene Muller-Landau leads the CTFS Global Carbon Research Initiative. The project will monitor the yearly growth of more than 10,000 trees around the world. So far, it appears that measuring the size of trees is the best way to predict how much carbon is being taken up by a forest.

Gutianshan, China—one of a unique set of sites coordinated by Ma Keping and colleagues at the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, that span a latitudinal gradient including temperate, subtropical, and tropical forests—will become a focus of the HSBC Climate Partnership in September. HSBC bank believes that hands-on participation will help employees connect the dots between their own lifestyles, global change, and sustainable forest management.

Looking forward, network researchers plan to survey the functional traits of all 8,000 species under the direction of S. Joseph Wright, staff scientist at STRI. They hope to barcode all of the species and create a phylogeny for species that have been barcoded. They plan to continue to census the existing plots and establish new temperate plots and will begin to more systematically quantify other organisms in the plots. The insect group will be led by Yves Basset at STRI.

Jerry Franklin, forest ecologist from the University of Washington who has studied forests of the Pacific Northwest since the late 1950s, talked about what it takes to create such a global network. Leaders mentor students from many different cultures and transfer the essential concepts to professionals who carry on when they are ready to hand off the baton. Institutions provide stability and continuity.

Stuart Davies, STRI director Eldredge Bermingham, and their staffs have taken the lead in finding long-term financial support for the network. Financial support, especially in the form of long-term endowments or government funding, is essential to CTFS efforts to monitor the health of the world’s forests and their response to climate change. As Jerry Franklin said at the meeting: “If ecologists had as much money as the people who predict the weather, think of what we could do!”