Auburn scientist part of research team identifying impacts of deforestation

Published: November 01, 2017
Updated: November 02, 2017
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An Auburn University scientist is part of an international research team that has identified the impacts of deforestation on global biodiversity. Breaking up the rainforest into small, isolated patches is forcing more species to live at the forest edge and putting those that are dependent on the forest core at risk, according to the team’s study.

The research article, “Creation of forest edges has a global impact on forest vertebrates,” published today in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, highlights how biodiversity is changing as a result of deforestation—forcing some species to the brink of extinction while others flourish in the changing environment.

The team includes Auburn University postdoctoral fellow Brian Klingbeil of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and was led by Newcastle University, United Kingdom, and Imperial College London. The scientists collected data for over 1,500 forest vertebrates and found that 85 percent of species are now being impacted by this forest fragmentation.

The winners are those that seek out the forest edge while the losers are those that rely on the forest core and whose habitat is being constantly squeezed.

“Tropical forest loss and fragmentation is a global threat to biodiversity and many vertebrate species are at risk of extinction from human activities,” said Klingbeil. “An important step to protect these species, is to know exactly how human-induced fragmentation of the land is impacting the animals that live there.”

Marion Pfeifer, lead author now based at Newcastle University, said, “This is critical for the hundreds of species that we identified as being clearly dependent on intact forest core areas—that is forest which is at least 200-400 meters from the edge. These include species such as the Sunda pangolin [Manis javanica], the Bahia Tapaculo [Eleoscytalopus psychopompus], the Long-billed Black Cockatoo [Zanda baudinii] and Baird’s tapir [Tapirus bairdii].

“These species were highly sensitive to the changing habitat and therefore more likely to disappear in landscapes that encompass only a small proportion of intact forest.”

Winners and losers: 85 percent of species affected

Half the world’s forest habitat is now within 500 meters of a “forest edge” due to the expansion of road networks, logging, agriculture and other human activity. These edges look different to the rest of the forest: with more light, less moisture and generally higher temperatures.

Using species’ abundance data collected from fragmented landscapes worldwide, the team analysed 1,673 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians to see how they respond to edges.

Using new spatial and statistical analyses developed at Imperial College London, they were able to show that 85 percent of species’ abundances are affected, either positively or negatively, by forest edges.

More importantly, edge effects create species communities near edges that bear little resemblance to the communities of forest interiors, and this species turnover likely reflects dramatic changes to the ecological functioning of modified forest habitats.

Robert Ewers, professor of ecology at Imperial College London, said, “About half of species win from the forest change; they like the edges and so avoid the deep forest, preferring instead to live near forest edges.

“The other half lose; they don’t like the edges and instead hide away in the deep forest. The winners and losers aren’t equal though. Some of the species that like edges are invasive like the boa constrictor, while the ones huddled into the deep forest are more likely to be threatened with extinction—like the Sunda pangolin.”

“Our analysis allows us to track species’ abundances in response to edge effects to predict the impact on biodiversity caused by forest loss and fragmentation,” added Pfeifer.

“This is useful for land management and as a tool to help guide our conservation efforts. The next step is to use this data and our software to allow managers to create ‘optimal landscapes’ that combine forest use with biodiversity conservation.”