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Secondary forests reconnect fragmented habitats

A study conducted by a collaborative team from Lancaster University, Bangor University, and the University of British Columbia sheds new light on the extensive benefits of secondary forests. 

Naturally regrown forests, also known as secondary forests, play a critical role in the connectivity of old-growth forest habitats. They can also help to shield other plants and wildlife from the harsh effects of climate change. 

Forest restoration 

“Restoration of forests across the globe would make a crucial contribution to achieving global climate change mitigation, with the growth of secondary forests on deforested land in the moist tropics fundamental to success,” wrote the study authors. 

“Although tropical secondary forests (defined here as forest growing on previously cleared land) store less carbon than old-growth forests, they rapidly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Forest fragmentation 

The research emphasizes the significant impact of secondary forests in mitigating the effects of forest fragmentation in the Amazon, an area crucial for global biodiversity conservation. 

“Secondary forests cover just 190,000 km2 of the Amazon but connect more than 2 million isolated fragments of old-growth forest, prominent amongst the world’s most important habitats for biodiversity conservation,” said study co-author Professor John Healey.

“The secondary forests are helping maintain connectivity for patches of old-growth forest that are too small to support long-term viable populations of rare species.”

These connections are vital for the survival of rare species that rely on extensive, undisturbed habitats.

Climate buffering 

“Secondary forests are buffering as much as 41% of old-growth forest edges, potentially shielding them from negative edge effects such as hotter temperatures and wind,” said study lead author Charlotte Smith.

“Proximity to old-growth forests can also help the rate of biodiversity and biomass recovery in secondary forests. It is positive that 94% of secondary forests were connected to old-growth forest. However, may old-growth forest remnants are small and degraded patches, so only 57% of secondary forest was connected to an area of extensive, structurally-intact old-growth.”

Study implications

Professor Healey says the research provides powerful new evidence of the importance of managing forests at the landscape scale. 

“Promoting forest restoration through secondary forests located next to old-growth forest remnants can play a vital role in both conserving biodiversity in these remnants and the rate of biodiversity recovery in the secondary forests themselves.”

The team notes that more research is needed to improve our understanding of the mechanisms driving variation in forest recovery and the potential benefits of secondary forest as buffers so that we can refine current estimates of forest carbon stocks and habitat provision.

UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 

The study underscores the importance of secondary forests in the broader context of the climate crisis and the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. This global initiative, spanning from 2021 to 2030, aims to halt the degradation of ecosystems and restore them to achieve global environmental goals. 

Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration calls for a collective effort from governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals.

The primary objective is to revitalize millions of hectares of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The restoration efforts encompass a wide range of ecosystems, including forests, farmlands, cities, wetlands, and oceans. These endeavors are crucial for combating climate change, enhancing food security, providing clean water, and halting biodiversity loss.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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