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What makes rainforests unique? History, not ecology

Date:
September 23, 2011
Source:
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Summary:
History and geology, not current ecology, are likely what has made tropical forests so variable from site to site, according to a new study.

This is a split image showing highly diverse tropical forest in Borneo (Lambir) on the bottom and a lower diversity temperate beech forest in Jasmund National Park (Germany) on the top.
Credit: Christian Ziegler

History and geology, not current ecology, are likely what has made tropical forests so variable from site to site, according to a new study published in the journal Science, co-authored by Liza Comita, research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

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"The same ecological processes seem to be working worldwide. The difference is that tropical organisms have been accumulating for vast periods of time," said Nathan J.B. Kraft, post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Colombia, who led the research team.

"This study shows how collecting data using the same methods at sites around the world, similar to what we do at the Center for Tropical Forest Science-Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories Network, offers new insights into the processes that shape ecological communities," said Comita, formerly a post-doctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, now an assistant professor at The Ohio State University. "We found that measurements of variation in biodiversity from place to place, called beta diversity, are actually very similar as you move from the tropics to the poles when you account for the number of species present in the first place."

Forests in Canada and Europe may have much more in common with tropical rainforests than previously believed. "We see that biodiversity patterns can be explained not by current ecological processes, unfolding over one or two generations, but by much longer-term historical and geological events," said Kraft, who will join the faculty at the University of Maryland next year.

"Fossils tell a similar story," said STRI scientist, Aaron O'Dea, co-author, with Willem Renema and others, of a 2008 article in Science showing that marine biodiversity hotspots could be traced back to ancient areas of tectonic activity. "Geological history reveals that glaciations and mass extinctions have lasting effects on the structure of biological communities. It bears witness to the devastation that occurs when accumulated biodiversity is lost: a threat we are facing today."

The team, which also included researchers from institutions in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand, was supported by the U.S. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and the U.S. National Science Foundation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. N. J. B. Kraft, L. S. Comita, J. M. Chase, N. J. Sanders, N. G. Swenson, T. O. Crist, J. C. Stegen, M. Vellend, B. Boyle, M. J. Anderson, H. V. Cornell, K. F. Davies, A. L. Freestone, B. D. Inouye, S. P. Harrison, J. A. Myers. Disentangling the Drivers of Diversity Along Latitudinal and Elevational Gradients. Science, 2011; 333 (6050): 1755 DOI: 10.1126/science.1208584

Cite This Page:

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "What makes rainforests unique? History, not ecology." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 September 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110923102536.htm>.
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. (2011, September 23). What makes rainforests unique? History, not ecology. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 28, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110923102536.htm
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "What makes rainforests unique? History, not ecology." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110923102536.htm (accessed March 28, 2015).

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