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Scientists name the most common tropical tree species for the first time

In a monumental international effort led by University College London (UCL) researchers, a team of 356 scientists has made a startling discovery about tree species in the world’s tropical forests.

Their study, encompassing over a million trees across 1,568 distinct tropical locations, reveals a strikingly uniform pattern of tree diversity spanning tropical forests in Africa, the Amazon, and Southeast Asia.

Significance of tree diversity in tropical forests

This extensive study marks the first of its kind to scrutinize the most prevalent tree species in these biodiverse-rich regions.

What emerges from their analysis is a revelation that a mere 2.2% of tree species constitute half of the total tree population in these tropical forests. This uniformity is remarkable, considering the vast geographical and environmental differences across the continents.

Dr. Declan Cooper, the lead author from UCL’s Geography Department and the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, underscores the significance of these findings.

He explains, “Our findings have profound implications for understanding tropical forests. Focusing on the commonest tree species can help predict the entire forest’s response to rapid environmental changes.”

This is crucial given the role of tropical forests as significant carbon stores and their global significance as carbon sinks.

Dr. Cooper further elucidates, “Identifying the prevalence of the most common species offers a new lens through which to view tropical forests. Tracking these species could revolutionize how we assess forest health and predict future ecological changes.”

Understanding tree diversity across continents

The Amazon encompasses a vast, interconnected forest region, in contrast to Southeast Asia’s predominantly fragmented island landscape.

Human settlements appeared in the Amazon approximately 20,000 years ago, much later than in the African and Southeast Asian forests, where people have resided for over 40,000 years.

Currently, African forests undergo a climate that is drier and cooler compared to their counterparts in the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

Whether it’s the expansive, interconnected forests of the Amazon, the fragmented island ecosystems of Southeast Asia, or the relatively drier and cooler African forests, this pattern holds true.

Despite their diverse histories and current environmental conditions, the similarity in tree diversity patterns across these regions suggests a possible underlying mechanism governing tree community assembly. This intriguing possibility forms the basis for future research endeavors.

Identifying common tropical tree species

Another striking aspect of this research is the identification of common tree species. Through statistical analyses and a technique called resampling, the team compiled a list of 1,119 tree species.

This list, a first of its kind, is expected to significantly streamline future ecological studies by focusing on these common species.

Professor Simon Lewis, the senior author of the study, highlights the novelty of their approach.

“By concentrating on a few hundred common tree species rather than the thousands we know little about, we can unlock new ways to understand these vital ecosystems,” Lewis said.

He adds, “This doesn’t diminish the importance of rare species, which require special conservation efforts, but emphasizes that significant advancements in knowledge can stem from studying the most common trees.”

Methodology and data collection

The research involved assembling data from untouched tropical forests, unaffected by logging or fire. In each location, teams meticulously recorded every tree with a trunk diameter exceeding 10 centimeters within a hectare.

This colossal effort, led by Professor Lewis over 20 years, resulted in the documentation of 1,003,805 trees, encompassing 8,493 species across almost eight square miles of forest.

In summary, this landmark study shines a light on the uniformity of tree diversity in tropical forests, while forging new paths for future ecological research and conservation efforts.

By focusing on the most common species, scientists can gain insights into the overall health and functioning of these crucial ecosystems, ultimately aiding in their preservation for future generations.

The full study was published in the journal Nature.


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