Can secondary forests capture carbon faster?

Joseph Wright
Joseph Wright

From:  STRI.org

There are an estimated five million square kilometers of abandoned farmland and logged forests in the tropics. This area, which is more than half the size of the United States, could become an important carbon sink if reclaimed by forests. Within 25 years a secondary forest can absorb as much as 80 percent of the CO2 that is held in a mature forest. Joseph Wright, a STRI forest ecologist doesn’t think that’s enough carbon, given how quickly humans are pumping it to the atmosphere. “I think we can do better,” he says.

The reason is that quickly removing a large amount of carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away for centuries is not something most tree species do well. Many grow too slowly, are too small, die too young or are not dense enough to rise to the task. Doubling the amount of carbon held in a forest might be as straightforward as slightly increasing the number of fast-growing, long-lived, high density, massive individuals in it.

This might not only be possible, it might also be profitable, says Wright, who is testing the thesis with a new reforestation experiment in western Panama. The experiment draws on 30 years of data he has collected on the life cycles of Panama’s hundreds of trees, the discount equations economists apply to carbon pricing and the latest prices for carbon offsets in Australia, Europe and British Columbia.

“We’ve been studying these trees for 30 years and hopefully we’ve learned some things about them that are useful,” says Wright.

Useful things include knowing what trees meet the desired criteria to manage a forest with higher-than average carbon storage: rapid growth, large mature size, and high wood density, all of which increase the amount of carbon stored by the tree. The Dipteryx and Terminalia trees Wright selected for the experiment also grow tall in full sunlight, as opposed to branching early in absence of neighboring trees. These potentially 40- to 50-meter-tall canopy giants usually rise to the canopy top late in secondary succession through gaps created by fallen trees. In mature forests, they account for a much greater percentage of stored carbon relative to their population size. In this experiment, Wright hopes to give them a low-investment head start, increasing the future mature forest’s population density of these trees as shade-tolerant trees gradually fill the understory and restore the area’s former biodiversity.

“I think we can skip an intermediate step of succession dominated by smaller, trees and go straight to the 30-40-meter tall forest,” says Wright. In 2010, Wright and his team planted hundreds of Dipteryx panamensis and Terminalia amazonia trees in quarter-hectare plot pairs across 50 hectares of former grazing pasture in Veraguas province in Western Panama.”If we end up with just ten of those surviving (per quarter hectare), we will have a forest that will have twice the biomass of an unmanaged forest in Panama,” says Wright. Even if survival is only ten per hectare, the forest will hold about 40 percent more carbon than it would otherwise, says Wright, who hopes to try a similar experiment with six species with complementary resource requirements to increase the likelihood of establishing a still denser forest.

Whether enough trees will survive is a question that will take many years to answer. In the higher-than-normal species density situation that Wright has created, pests might be a problem in the short-term. After two years, the plantations are doing well with the young trees up to 10 m tall and no signs of pest outbreaks.

Carbon offset prices currently mandated in California, British Colombia and Australia make the enterprise profitable on otherwise abandoned lands and there are two million square kilometers of such lands in the tropics. The international community, however, lacks a mechanism to recompense governments for augmented carbon sequestration in secondary forests. Wright believes that as atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global temperatures continue to climb, this mechanism will appear.

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Testing the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis in Panama

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Could alcoholism in humans be an evolutionary hangover? Robert Dudley, professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley believes so. His “Drunken Monkey Hypothesis” suggests that fruit-eating primates —such as BCI’s spider monkeys—may be drawn to naturally occurring ethanol in the fruits they consume. Frugivorous primates have been eating fermented fruit for 40 million years. The health benefits of low-level alcohol consumption are consistent with an ancient and potentially adaptive exposure to this common, psychoactive substance.

Christina Campbell, associate professor of Anthropology at California State University Northridge, who has studied behavior, ecology and reproduction of spider monkeys, Ateles groffroyi, since 1996, is back on BCI with graduate student, Victoria Weaver, to test Dudley’s hypothesis. They will measure the ethanol concentration in the sugary fruits of Spondias mombin, a mango relative extremely important in the monkeys’ diet.

Christina and Victoria will be running through the forest chasing spider monkeys to collect fallen fruits and/or urine samples (which will be tested for an ethanol metabolite) until September 2014.

Visit an Embera Community in Gatun Lake – A unique experience

by:  Anne Kehmeier, Intern

Luckily I had the chance to join an exciting EcoCircuitos tour to the indigenous village of the Embera Drua people to get to know their lifestyles and traditions. Accompanied by a great naturalist guide we started our trip with a ride through the Canal Zone and the nice Soberania National Park where we even saw a small anteater on the street. Arrived at the bank of the Chagres River we boarded a motorized piragua (dugout canoe) with an indigenous guide and captain and traveled the Gatun Lake to the communityt. We had a stop for a small hike of the botanical trail “Venta de Cruces” off the community. This forest was full of interesting trees, plants and small animals like the rana hoja, a frog that looks like a leave and is very well camouflaged. The indigenous guide explained us how the trail was used and showed us many different plants. He described how these plants were applied and still are nowadays, for example for medical purposes. After the small hike we continued our boat tour to the village. While enjoying the view out of the boat over the river and the nearby forests and the refreshing water that spilled over to us in the boat from time to time we reached the bank where the Embera village is situated. Our arrival at the “dock” was accompanied with local music and we were welcomed very friendly. After some time of enjoying the marvelous location and the view of the river we were given a presentation about clothing, handcrafts and other traditions and lifestyles by a young representative of the Embera community. Most of the arts and crafts are made of natural resources like seeds, leaves and different kinds of wood. Then we even had the pleasure to have a traditional lunch which existed of delicious fried plantain and fish, followed by fresh bananas and pineapples as desert. After this yummy lunch the Embera women showed us a really fascinating dance accompanied by interesting traditional music presented by the Embera men. We were even invited to join the dance and learn some steps; this was really exciting and fun! After this program we had the opportunity to explore the village and the surroundings a little bit, of course in way that does not disrupt the daily life of the community. By doing so we could also buy some of the beautiful handcrafts made by the Embera.

I was very pleased to hear and to see that the local community really benefits from tourism and this is a way for them to demonstrate their traditions and sell their self-made products. As this community lives in the Chagres National Park, thus a protected area, they are not allowed to hunt, to cultivate fields and use the wood of the forest to keep their farms. Therefore it is a great opportunity that they profit from tourism as they welcome regularly small groups and thus they have the opportunity to sell their handcrafts like nicely designed plates, small statues, neglects, bracelets and much more. In this way they do not only preserve their traditions but also conserve and preserve the nature around them.

I really enjoyed this adventure, the people were really friendly and open-minded and I learned a lot about the life in the Chagres National Park. It was a pleasure for me to get to know the Embera people and I am really glad I had this opportunity. Thanks for this great, exciting, personal and very unique experience!

25 years after extreme drought on BCI

from STRI

A new article by Kenneth Feeley from Florida International University, with STRI’s Stuart J. Davies, Rolando Perez and Stephen P. Hubbell and former staff scientist Robin B. Foster (now at the Field Museum, Chicago), was recently published as the cover article of the journal Ecology (April).

The article, entitled “Directional changes in the species composition of a tropical forest”, examines changes in the composition of tree species growing on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, R,P.
Feeley and colleagues show that over the past 25 years there has been a remarkably consistent and directional pattern of increasing abundances of drought-tolerant species at the expense of more drought-insensitive tree species. The cause(s) of this change remains uncertain, but the most likely culprits are either long-term changes in climate leading to reduced water availability (i.e., increasing temperatures and reduced rainfall), or alternatively the compositional changes may be the ongoing legacy of an extreme El Nino drought that occurred in the early 1980’s.

By investigating compositional changes, scientists increase not only their understanding of the ecology of tropical forests and their responses to large-scale disturbances, but also their ability to predict how future global change will impact some of the critical services provided by ecosystems as important as those of the Panama Canal watershed.
You may obtain the article from calderom@si.edu

The Belly bottom of the Americas

Panama is a true biological bridge between North America and South America. The country has a concentration of animals and plants species among the richest in the world and is one of the countries in Central America with more biodiversity.

Barro Colorado
Barro Colorado Island, Panama

This time, we will focus on one of its jewels of this country: the Barro Colorado Island. This extraordinary biodiversity will delight the nature lovers. The Barro Colorado Island (BCNM) is the highest Island in the waters of Gatun Lake. It is located in the Isthmus of Panama and is one of the first protected areas of America. Barro Colorado Island’s unique location and history have made it what may be the most intensively studied piece of tropical forest in the world.
Before the filing of Artificial Gatun Lake, Barro Colorado Island was a hill, full of trees and animals. The needs of the Panama canal, converted the Barro Colorado in a shelter island to the animals in this flooded valley. Very quickly, biologists realized the scientific importance of this tropical sanctuary.

Founded in 1923, the Barro Colorado island has been recognized as a nature reserve in 1979. This preserved ecosystem attracts scientist who study the evolution of the fauna and the flora of the neotropics. On the island live thousands of insects of all kinds, but also 120 species of mammals, half of which are bats. This marvel of biodiversity host more species than all Europe, there are more of 1.200 different plants.
EcoCircuitos propose a Historical and natural Tour, which offers the opportunity to admire a great variety of this wild forest.
The adventure begins at 6:30 AM at your hotel in Panama City, with a car ride through the tropical rainforest towards the small town of Gamboa where a boat is waiting for us in the STRI dock. From there you go on a 45 min – 1 hour boat ride to the Barro Colorado Natural Monument (BCNM), administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. You will discover the splendor of the tropical rainforest in Barro Colorado, the largest forested island in the Panama Canal waterway. You will learn about research in progress and the rich natural history of the BCNM.
You will go on a 2-3 hour walk along the trail on Barro Colorado Island. The walk ends at the Visitor Center, where you will find an exhibition regarding BCNM. After the Visitors Center you will head to the cafeteria to have lunch in a student atmosphere. Next time in Panama don´t miss this great adventure tour. For more information, contact us at sales@ecocircuitos.com or call us at + 507 3140068