Letter | Published:

Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity

Nature volume 478, pages 378381 (20 October 2011) | Download Citation


  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 18 December 2013


Human-driven land-use changes increasingly threaten biodiversity, particularly in tropical forests where both species diversity and human pressures on natural environments are high1. The rapid conversion of tropical forests for agriculture, timber production and other uses has generated vast, human-dominated landscapes with potentially dire consequences for tropical biodiversity2,3,4,5. Today, few truly undisturbed tropical forests exist, whereas those degraded by repeated logging and fires, as well as secondary and plantation forests, are rapidly expanding6,7. Here we provide a global assessment of the impact of disturbance and land conversion on biodiversity in tropical forests using a meta-analysis of 138 studies. We analysed 2,220 pairwise comparisons of biodiversity values in primary forests (with little or no human disturbance) and disturbed forests. We found that biodiversity values were substantially lower in degraded forests, but that this varied considerably by geographic region, taxonomic group, ecological metric and disturbance type. Even after partly accounting for confounding colonization and succession effects due to the composition of surrounding habitats, isolation and time since disturbance, we find that most forms of forest degradation have an overwhelmingly detrimental effect on tropical biodiversity. Our results clearly indicate that when it comes to maintaining tropical biodiversity, there is no substitute for primary forests.

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We thank the tropical conservation scientists whose efforts helped to make our study possible. L.G., T.M.L. and N.S.S. were supported by grant R-154-000-479-112 from the National University of Singapore and L.G. was also supported by the Singapore International Graduate Award. L.P.K. was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the ETH North-South Centre. T.A.G. thanks the Natural Environmental Research Council (NE/F01614X/1), and T.A.G. and J.B. thank the Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia – Biodiversidade e Uso da Terra na Amazônia (CNPq 574008/2008-0) for funding. We dedicate this paper to the memory of N.S.S., who died while the manuscript was being reviewed.

Author information

Author notes

    • Luke Gibson
    •  & Tien Ming Lee

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

    • Navjot S. Sodhi



  1. Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, 14 Science Drive 4, Singapore 117543, Singapore

    • Luke Gibson
    • , Lian Pin Koh
    •  & Navjot S. Sodhi
  2. Ecology, Behavior and Evolution Section, Division of Biological Sciences, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, California 92093-0116, USA

    • Tien Ming Lee
  3. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, PO Box 208106, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8106, USA

    • Tien Ming Lee
  4. Department of Environmental Sciences, ETH Zurich, CHN G73.1, Universitatstrasse, 16 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Lian Pin Koh
  5. The Environment Institute and School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia

    • Barry W. Brook
    •  & Corey J. A. Bradshaw
  6. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK

    • Toby A. Gardner
  7. Lancaster Environmental Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ, UK

    • Jos Barlow
  8. School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Carlos A. Peres
  9. South Australian Research and Development Institute, PO Box 120, Henley Beach, South Australia 5022, Australia

    • Corey J. A. Bradshaw
  10. Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS) and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Cairns, Queensland 4870, Australia

    • William F. Laurance
  11. Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA), CP 478, Manaus, AM 69011–970, Brazil

    • Thomas E. Lovejoy
  12. H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and Environment, 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC 20004, USA

    • Thomas E. Lovejoy


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The design of this project was the result of discussions involving all authors. L.G. and T.M.L. compiled the database; L.G., T.M.L. and B.W.B. performed the analysis; L.G., T.M.L. and N.S.S. wrote the initial draft of the manuscript; and all authors contributed to the writing of the final version of the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Luke Gibson or Tien Ming Lee.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-5 and Supplementary Figures 1-4 with legends.

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    Supplementary Data

    This file contains biodiversity and locality data from tropical forest landscapes.

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