Smithsonian-led Amazon research team wins scientific prize

A research team led by William Laurance, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, will be honored for their "Outstanding Paper in Landscape Ecology" by the International Association of Landscape Ecologists in Tucson, Ariz. April 12. Co-author Susan G. Laurance will accept the award on the teams behalf.

The paper, entitled "Rapid decay of tree-community composition in Amazonian forest fragments," published in the December 12, 2006 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes the remarkably potent impacts of habitat fragmentation on the Amazon ecosystem.

The Amazon contains the planets most biologically diverse tree communities, with up to 300 species existing in an area the size of just two football fields. These forests are being felled rapidly and fragmented into small "islands" as a result of timber extraction operations, cattle ranches and industrial soy farms.

The team, which included scientists from the United States, Brazil, Panama and France, studied the fates of nearly 32,000 Amazonian trees since 1980. The most striking finding, say the authors, is the remarkable speed at which tree communities are changing in forest fragments.

"Rainforest trees can live for centuries, even millennia, so none of us expected things to change so fast," Laurance said. "But in just two decadesa wink of time for a 1000-year-old treethe ecosystem has been seriously degraded."

The main driver of these effects, say the authors, is ecological change near the margins of forest fragments. "When you fragment the rainforest, hot winds from the surrounding pastures blow into the forest and kill trees, which just cant handle the stress," said Henrique Nascimento, a co-author of the study from Brazils National Institute for Amazonian Research.

"Were very pleased to receive this award," said Thomas Lovejoy of the Heinz Center in Washington, D.C., who helped to initiate the study of Amazon forest fragme

Contact: Beth King
202-786-2094, ext. 8216
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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