How nature creates forest diversity

Forests, especially tropical forests, are home to thousands of species of trees -- sometimes tens to hundreds of tree species in the same forest -- a level of biodiversity ecologists have struggled to explain. In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and their colleagues in Australia are now providing a first model that elucidates the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms underlying these natural patterns.

"Forests in particular and vegetation in general are central for understanding terrestrial biodiversity, ecosystem services, and carbon dynamics," says IIASA Evolution and Ecology Program Director Ulf Dieckmann. Forest plants grow to different heights and at different speeds, with the tallest trees absorbing the greatest amounts of sunlight, and shorter trees and shrubs making do with the lower levels of sunlight that filter through the canopy. These slow-growing shade-tolerant species come in an unexpectedly large number of varieties -- in fact, far more than ecological models have been able to explain until now.

Traditional ecological theory holds that each species on this planet occupies its own niche, or environment, where it can uniquely thrive. However, identifying separate niches for each and every species has been difficult, and may well be impossible, especially for the observed plethora of shade-tolerant tropical trees. This raises the fundamental question: are separate niches really always needed for species coexistence?

In the new study, the researchers combined tree physiology, ecology, and evolution to construct a new model in which tree species and their niches coevolve in mutual dependence. While previous models had not been able to predict a high biodiversity of shade-tolerant species to coexist over long periods of time, the new model demonstrates how physiological differences and competition for light naturally lead to a large number of species, just as in nature. At the same time, the new model shows that fast-growing shade-intolerant tree species evolve to occupy narrow and well-separated niches, whereas slow-growing shade-tolerant tree species have evolved to occupy a very broad niche that offers enough room for a whole continuum of different species to coexist -- again, just as observed in nature.

Providing a more comprehensive understanding of forest ecosystems, the resulting model may prove useful for researchers working on climate change and forest management. Dieckmann says, "We hope this work will result in a better understanding of human impacts on forests, including timber extraction, fire control, habitat fragmentation, and climate change."

Read the paper: Multi-trait successional forest dynamics enable diverse competitive coexistence.

Article source; International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


How plants form their sugar transport routes

In experiments on transport tissues in plants, researchers from Heidelberg University were able to identify factors of crucial importance for the formation of the plant tissue known as phloem. According to Prof. Dr Thomas Greb of the Centre for Organismal Studies (COS), these factors differ from all previously known factors that trigger the specification of cells. The findings of the Heidelberg researchers substantially expand our understanding of the metabolic processes in plants. Their results were published in the journal Current Biology.

Scientists examine impact of high-severity fires on conifer forests

The ability of some Western conifer forests to recover after severe fire may become increasingly limited as the climate continues to warm, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Harvard Forest found in a new study published in Global Change Biology. Although most of these cone-bearing evergreen trees are well adapted to fire, the study examines whether two likely facets of climate change -- hotter, drier conditions and larger, more frequent and severe wildfires -- could potentially transform landscapes from forested to shrub-dominated systems.

From Elsevier: 200 Years of Flora - free access to all articles

2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of the journal Flora. To kickstart the celebrations, all journals in the Elsevier archives have been scanned and have been added to ScienceDirect. Articles published before 1905 are available via the Biodiversity Library, and all articles from 1905 onwards are freely available via ScienceDirect until March 2020 and can be accessed through this page: https://www.journals.elsevier.com/flora/news/200-years-of-flora-free-access-to-all-articles.