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Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity


A Corrigendum to this article was published on 18 December 2013

This article has been updated


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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Figure 1: Map of study sites by country and by study location.
Figure 2: Box plots of bootstrapped effect size.
Figure 3: Box plots of bootstrapped effect size.

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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Luke Gibson or Tien Ming Lee.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-5 and Supplementary Figures 1-4 with legends. (PDF 467 kb)

Supplementary Data

This file contains biodiversity and locality data from tropical forest landscapes. (XLS 739 kb)

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Gibson, L., Lee, T., Koh, L. et al. Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity. Nature 478, 378–381 (2011).

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