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Forest cover loss leads to decades of biodiversity changes

An investigation into the impacts of forest cover loss on biodiversity has revealed widespread changes in species all over the world. The experts found that forest loss has a transformative effect on the species present, accelerating both gains and losses in biodiversity.  

The researchers analyzed biodiversity fluctuations related to 150 years of forest cover changes in over 6,000 locations. 

Study lead author Gergana Daskalova is a PhD student in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh.

“Biodiversity, the types of species like different plants and animals around the world, is always changing and the species we see on our forest walks today are likely different from the ones we saw growing up,” said Daskalova.

“We’re harnessing the power of generations of scientists recording data as they walk through forests. This allowed us to find signals amidst the noise and pick apart the influence of forest loss from the natural variation in biodiversity over time.”

Forests support around 80 percent of all terrestrial species. Some of these plants and animals are best suited for life in unimpaired older forests. 

Human activities such as deforestation and land use changes alter forest ecosystems. The researchers found that forest cover loss amplified gains and losses in the abundance of different species as well as in the overall biodiversity.

“Surprisingly, we found that forest loss doesn’t always lead to biodiversity declines,” said Daskalova. “Instead, when we lose forest cover, this can amplify the ongoing biodiversity change.” 

“For example, if a plant or animal species was declining before forest loss, its decline becomes even more severe after forest loss. That same intensification of the signal was also true for increasing species.”

“Changes in the biodiversity of the planet’s forests matter because they will echo through how these landscapes look, the types of species they support and the benefits that forests provide for society like clean air and water.”

The study was focused on data from the BioTIME and Living Planet biodiversity databases, which include documentation from research conducted in sites all over the world. The team analyzed over 5 million records of biodiversity numbers along with information on both historic and recent peaks in forest cover loss.

“To get a global picture of how the planet is changing we need to combine different types of information from observations of plants and animals on the ground through to satellite records of ecosystem change from space,” said study co-senior author Dr. Isla Myers-Smith.

“Our study brings together these two perspectives to make new insights into how biodiversity responds when forests are lost around the world.”

“Ecology is being reshaped by the new tools available to us as researchers. From satellite observations through to high-performance computers, we ecologists can now ask questions with larger and more complex datasets. We are now coming to a new understanding of how ecosystems are responding to human impacts around the planet.”

The analysis showed that forest ecosystems experienced both immediate and delayed effects after forests were converted. The findings indicate that human-induced biodiversity changes are complex and unfold over years to decades.

Grasses, plants, and insects respond to forest loss within a few years, while older trees and large birds and mammals respond much more slowly – over decades. 

“Humans are undoubtedly changing the planet. Yet, global analyses of how biodiversity is changing over time, like our study, are revealing biodiversity changes are nuanced and variable,” said study co-senior author Dr. Maria Dornelas of the University of St. Andrews.

“With a better understanding of the different ways, both positive and negative, in which forest loss influences biodiversity, we can improve future conservation and restoration of global ecosystems.

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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