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Super-charged tropical trees

Super-charged tropical trees

A team of scientists has found that Borneo’s productive trees are vitally important for global carbon cycling.

The research showed that the woody growth of forests in north Borneo is half as great again as the most productive forests of north-west Amazonia.

Whilst regional variation in wood production rates has been suspected, this research is the first to use identical methods in Amazonia and Borneo to measure properties of both the forests and their soils, making robust comparisons among different continents possible for the first time. 

The study was led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Leeds and examined differences in above-ground wood production (one component of the total uptake of carbon by plants), which is critically important in the global cycling of carbon. 

They found that trees are taller for a given diameter in Southeast Asia compared with South America, meaning they gain more biomass per unit of diameter growth, and this in part explains the differences observed.

The research team also discovered that trees in north Borneo belonging to the family Dipterocarpaceae (or dipterocarps, translating literally to “winged seeds”) produce wood faster than neighbouring trees of other families, or any trees in the Amazonian sites. The average difference is 3.2 tons of wood per hectare per year.

The two regions were compared as they are climatically similar with no annual dry season, and each region has a range of soil conditions, meaning the primary difference between them is the different tree species that happen to exist in each region. 

Above-ground wood production is the amount of biomass gained in the woody parts of a tree. It can be estimated from repeated measures of tree diameter and estimates of wood density and tree height. The study examined data from 26 hectares of forest and 12,000 trees which have been monitored for more than twenty years.

Lead author Dr Lindsay Banin from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said, “In Borneo, dipterocarps – a family of large trees with winged seeds - produce wood more quickly than their neighbours. This means that they have evolved something special and unique - what exactly this is remains a mystery. Dipterocarps are known to make special relationships with fungi in the soil, so they may be able to tap into scarce nutrient resources. Or, they may be trading-off growth of other plant parts.”

Co-author Professor Oliver Phillips from the University of Leeds added, “One big question in ecology is whether plant species composition matters at all to fundamental ecosystem functions such as productivity, or carbon storage. The fact that dipterocarp-dominated forests achieve faster wood growth than even the most diverse forests in the Amazon shows that the random evolutionary histories of continents can determine their whole ecology. Identity really does matter.”

With growing global datasets collected using standardised methods, further comparisons will be possible across the tropics to help elucidate the nature and causes of variation in plant biomass growth. Understanding variation in the capacity for forests to store and sequester carbon is vitally important for managing them best to keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

The research was carried out by an international collaboration of scientists from the UK, Asia, South America and USA, and has been published in the Journal of Ecology.

For further information

Professor Oliver Phillips and Dr Simon Lewis are available for interview. To arrange, please contact the University of Leeds press office on +44 (0)113 343 34031 or email pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk

Dr Lindsay Banin is available for interview. To arrange, please contact Dr Barnaby Smith, Media Relations Manager, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK, Mobile: 07920 295384, Email: bpgs@ceh.ac.uk

Additional information

This work was supported by the RAINFOR network, the AMAZONICA project, and funding from NERC and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Lindsay Banin was supported by a NERC studentship with additional funding from Henrietta Hutton Grant (RGS-IBG) and Dudley Stamp Award (Royal Society). Simon Lewis is supported by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. Oliver Phillips and Simon Lewis are supported by a European Research Council Advanced Grant and Oliver Phillips by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.

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