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Understanding biodiversity in forests

Credit: Paul Spiers/iStock/Getty

The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany has led pioneering work on forests biodiversity and the associated nature-based services that support societies.

The good, the bad and the fungi

How different species coexist still puzzles ecologists. A forest typically comprises just a few common plant species and many rare species. The accepted wisdom — that natural predators stop the forest becoming dominated by a single species — is undermined too often. The research team from CAS looked at soil fungi and their complex plant relationships, ranging from co-dependency as symbionts, to pathogens or decomposers that support nutrient recycling.

Establishing a broad network of observation data of large forest dynamics plots, the researchers compared survival rates of rare and common tree species to show that the interaction of different functional soil fungi determines how trees coexist. Published in Science in 2019, the research showed beneficial symbiotic fungi around soil roots reduced disease-causing fungi to improve tree survival, particularly around trees of the same species. Trees with high levels of pathogenic fungi fared worse in dense patches.

Model forest confirms potential to reduce climate change

The complex relationship between biodiversity, and its capacity to support ecosystem functions, is difficult to observe in forests: trees grow so slowly that research conclusions build slowly too. Collaborating with German and Swiss colleagues, the CAS research team created the world’s largest experimental subtropical forest of 300,000 trees in plots from 1-32 species to test the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

A decade of monitoring led to the landmark finding that forests with mixed tree species had twice the biomass of forests with single species—demonstrating that forests with greater diversity have higher productivity. Published in Science in 2018, the study identified that more diverse forests also had a higher capacity to store carbon and a faster carbon cycle rate, confirming that conservation of forests can slow global warming.

Drawing a line under human impacts on species diversity

Understanding links between human activities and large-scale patterns of species diversity can help determine priority areas and strategies for protection. In collaboration with colleagues from Tsinghua University, the CAS team prepared a global biodiversity priority protection area distribution map of high-efficiency and low-cost protection areas, published in Science Advances in 2020. This map, together with a map of the potential distribution of protected areas, provides the scientific basis for deliberations by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.


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