Innovations in tropical forest research
Center for Tropical Forest Science takes a new director
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute news release
October 12, 2005
Tropical forest research innovations: the Center for Tropical Forest Science takes a new director, defines new horizons and receives a significant pledge.
E.O. Wilson said: “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”1 Dr. Stuart Davies, new Director of the Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS) at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), is a synthesizer. With scientific data from 3 million tropical trees in 18 permanent forest plots in 15 countries already in hand–he will guide the asking of big questions about how the most beautiful forests on the planet became so biodiverse and how to save remaining forests and restore degraded land in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
“Recently, we gathered a group of people who have been thinking about tropical forests for the last twenty-five years in order to come up with the big questions we want to address in the next twenty-five,” explains Davies. Group discussions often referred to the “plot”-a 50 ha area (about ten contiguous football fields) of tropical forest where trees have been mapped, identified and measured every five years since 1980. The original large tropical forest plot at STRI’s field station on Barro Colorado Island in Panama was the brainchild of Robin Foster (Chicago Field Museum) and Steve Hubbell (University of Georgia and STRI), who were embroiled in a debate about how biodiverse tropical tree communities assemble and persist.
Monitoring more than 300,000 trees on the plot proved to be so useful, not only to ecologists, but also to forest managers who need to know how fast tropical trees grow and which habitats they prefer, that the plot in Panama became the model for a unique global network of forest research sites. [MAP] The Center for Tropical Forest Science at STRI coordinates the network. Davies, who became Director on October 1, explains: “Long term monitoring is our bread and butter: it’s what we do really well. The plot system is an extremely powerful set up. We can answer questions on a global scale–the infrastructure is already there.”
Regular monitoring requires stable funding and STRI Director, Ira Rubinoff, is pleased to announce that Frank H. Levinson has pledged 10 million dollars to transform the CTFS network of plots into a truly global set of rainforest observatories: “Clearly more and longer-term information gathering about the dynamics of tropical forests and other major ecosystems is essential if we are to build ecological, climate or biodiversity models that have predictive power. Scientific theories need such data in order to be thoroughly tested and useful in their application.”
Davies, a CTFS insider as Science Director for the joint CTFS-Harvard Arnold Arboretum Asia Program, which coordinates research plots in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan, wants to consolidate efforts in Latin America and Asia and strengthen new initiatives in Africa and elsewhere. “We will use the Levinson donation to start an endowment fund that will ensure that all of the plots can be recensused on schedule, to round out the global network by adding plots in forest types that are not currently represented, to facilitate work by scientists in new fields, and to set up automated instrumentation to increase the number of variables that we monitor and the accuracy of our data sets.”
New Horizons for Tropical Forest Research
CTFS is rushing to assemble an expert group of scientists studying carbon cycles who will design experiments revealing whether tropical forests act as a carbon sink. CTFS associates will also consider how carbon credits might leverage tropical forest conservation.
An international group of hydrologists and plant physiologists will gather at CTFS offices in Panama in November to debate the state of the knowledge on plant-soil-water relations, and the impacts of deforestation and reforestation on watershed hydrology in the tropics. The results of these meetings will help to define future CTFS watershed research to answer key hydrological management questions.
“It’s amazing how little work has actually been done on a global scale to understand the importance of biological interactions, like pollination, seed dispersal, herbivory and disease in shaping tropical forest communities.”–Davies
“In view of the genuine possibility of a global collapse of biodiversity in the near future, it is unconscionable that we still have no serviceable general theory of biodiversity. We know how to treat a cancer patient with monoclonal antibodies and genetically engineer pest resistance in crop plants, but we do not know how many species inhabit the earth or even a small part of it.”–Hubbell 2001, 3.
“We call them pristine or primary forests and they are filled with awesomely huge old trees but almost all of the forest plots are shaped by human impacts-important animals have been hunted out, or, in other cases, hunting has been prohibited, and wild pigs are taking over. One of the proposals on the table is to do paleontology work, excavations to reveal how the land has been used by people in the past, at each site.”-Davies
For the last 5 years, CTFS scientists in Panama have been using data from the large plot on Barro Colorado Island to develop restoration strategies for degraded Central American landscapes. CTFS seeks to use the basic ecological information from the large plots to address issues of restoration, forest management and forest conservation across the worldwide network.
Steve Hubbell thinks CTFS will prosper under Davies’ leadership: “Stuart Davies is an accomplished, internationally respected, tropical forest ecologist and evolutionary biologist. He’s prepared to help CTFS serve the needs of host countries by providing solutions to their applied forestry problems. Stuart will need to increase the visibility and funding base of the organization in order to maintain the infrastructure and permanent scientific staffing that support this global network for the long term. “
Davies will follow up on plans made by his predecessors, Elizabeth Losos (now President and CEO of the Organization for Tropical Studies) and interim director Mark Wishnie, to provide immediate help for foresters, farmers and park managers through CTFS’s program in Applied Ecology, in partnership with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
He also will build relationships with people who can create wisdom from plot data: “We need to expand the number of users in a thoughtful way, recognizing the people who have contributed to setting up these plots and return benefits to the countries we work in. We’re already setting up training courses for in-country students and professionals and working with Yale, the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland to send students to the plots.”
In a recent article in the journal Science, Sir Robert May and Michael Stumpf wrote that “we desperately need ambitious projects, such as the Center for Tropical Forest Science.”2 Stuart Davies will be an ambitious leader who will move this project forward.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a unit of the Smithsonian Institution, with headquarters in Panama City, Panama, was established to further our understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, to train students to conduct research in the tropics and to promote conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems.
Contact: Contact: Science Interpreter, Beth King, Tel. 202 786-2094 ext 8216, e-mail kingb (at) si.edu
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
República de Panamá
Email: kingb (at) tivoli.si.edu
You can learn more about the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at www.stri.org
Center for Tropical Forest Science Programs
This is a modified news release from STRI.