Understanding how communities are structured in human-modified landscapes

Summary

It is now evident that biodiversity conservation cannot be solely undertaken inside protected areas. However, to effectively preserve biodiversity in human-modified landscapes, we first need to understand how habitat loss and disturbance affects species, species interactions and the role that species have in the ecosystem. My research investigates how communities are structured in human-modified landscapes using both an empirical and theoretical approach. My group collects and analyses data from tropical forests to answer questions such as: what is the minimum area needed to preserve biodiversity and a functional ecosystem; and how to best conciliate biodiversity with human needs. We develop theoretical models to better understand how communities are structured in pristine and modified landscapes, and use our findings to guide conservation policy.

The Challenge

Community ecology is not a new scientific area, nonetheless it still suffers from the lack of a theoretical framework and theoretical models that take into account the full complexity of this system. For instance, the loss of species is still mostly investigated with an individualistic approach rather than as part of a chain of events. This means that much of our knowledge of how global changes affect biodiversity is simplistic, non-mechanistic  and imprecise.  My ultimate goal is to develop new theory and models that will not only make a step change in this field, but will also aid conservationists and policy makers to reduce human impacts on biodiversity.

Insights

We have already shown what are the main drivers of biodiversity loss in fragmented landscapes, and how communities respond to such influences. We have now just recently discovered what are the minimum area requirements to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in human-modified landscapes, and how much it will cost to initiate a large-scale long-term programme to implement set asides in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Ongoing work will allow us to quantify the impacts of species loss and better understand the web of interactions among species, and between species and the environment.

Impact

Previous work has influenced the creation of a prioritisation framework that is now being used by the Brazilian Government to select areas for restoration and preservation of the Atlantic Forest.

The Future

The future holds the beginning of collaborations with mathematicians and physicists to borrow analytical frameworks developed in other disciplines for the advance of community ecology. We will also delve deeper into the chain of events that starts with individuals being affected by habitat loss and the long term consequences to ecosystems.

The Team

Students

  • Michelle Harrison, PhD candidate at Imperial College London
  • Jack Hatfield, PhD candidate at Imperial College London
  • Edicson Parra, PhD candidate at Imperial College London
  • Camila Mandai, PhD candidate at University of São Paulo
  • Julia Santos, MRes candidate at University of São Paulo
  • Gabriela Medeiros, MRes candidate at University of São Paulo

GCEE and Imperial College collaborators:

  • Rob Ewers
  • Jon Lloyd
  • Nick Jones, Department of Mathematics
  • Dave Orme
  • E.J. Milner-Gulland

International Collaborators

  • Jean Paul Meztger, University of São Paulo
  • Renata Pardini, University of São Paulo
  • Paulo Inácio Prado, University of São Paulo
  • Luis A. Martinelli, University of São Paulo
  • Marcos Vinicius Vieira, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
  • Robert Holt, University of Florida

ECOFOR collaborators

  • Jos Barlow, University of Lancaster
  • Yadvinder Malhi, University of Oxford
  • Joe Tobias, University of Oxford
  • Emanuel Gloor, University of Leeds
  • Oliver Phillips, University of Leeds
  • Patrick Meir, University of Edinburgh
  • Carlos Joly, Universidade Estadual de Campinas
  • Simone A. Vieira, Universidade Estadual de Campinas
  • Jorge Tamashiro, Universidade Estadual de Campinas
  • Humberto R. da Rocha, University of São Paulo
  • Tomas Domingues, University of São Paulo
  • Helber Freitas, University of São Paulo
  • Marcos Aidar, Institute of Botany
  • Luis Carlos Bernacci, Agronomy Institute of Campinas

Work is funded by the European Commission, NERC (UK), FAPESP (Brazil) and CAPES (Brazil).