Letter | Published:

Global patterns of tropical forest fragmentation

Nature volume 554, pages 519522 (22 February 2018) | Download Citation


Remote sensing enables the quantification of tropical deforestation with high spatial resolution1,2. This in-depth mapping has led to substantial advances in the analysis of continent-wide fragmentation of tropical forests1,2,3,4. Here we identified approximately 130 million forest fragments in three continents that show surprisingly similar power-law size and perimeter distributions as well as fractal dimensions. Power-law distributions5,6,7 have been observed in many natural phenomena8,9 such as wildfires, landslides and earthquakes. The principles of percolation theory7,10,11 provide one explanation for the observed patterns, and suggest that forest fragmentation is close to the critical point of percolation; simulation modelling also supports this hypothesis. The observed patterns emerge not only from random deforestation, which can be described by percolation theory10,11, but also from a wide range of deforestation and forest-recovery regimes. Our models predict that additional forest loss will result in a large increase in the total number of forest fragments—at maximum by a factor of 33 over 50 years—as well as a decrease in their size, and that these consequences could be partly mitigated by reforestation and forest protection.

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The project has been supported by the Helmholtz Alliance Remote Sensing and Earth System Dynamics. A.H. and T.W. were supported by the European Research Council Advanced Grant 233066. We thank A. Hein and A. Bogdanowski for assistance, A. Hartmann for discussion, M. Dantas de Paula for data handling, and S. Paulick and F. Bohn for technical support.

Author information


  1. Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Department of Ecological Modelling, Permoserstrasse 15, 04318 Leipzig, Germany

    • Franziska Taubert
    • , Rico Fischer
    • , Jürgen Groeneveld
    • , Sebastian Lehmann
    • , Michael S. Müller
    • , Edna Rödig
    • , Thorsten Wiegand
    •  & Andreas Huth
  2. TU Dresden, Institute of Forest Growth and Forest Computer Sciences, PO 1117, 01735 Tharandt, Germany

    • Jürgen Groeneveld
  3. German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Deutscher Platz 5e, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

    • Thorsten Wiegand
    •  & Andreas Huth
  4. University of Osnabrück, Institute of Environmental Systems Research, Barbarastrasse 12, 49076 Osnabrück, Germany

    • Andreas Huth


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A.H., F.T. and R.F. conceived the project. A.H., F.T. and T.W. supervised the research. S.L. and E.R. processed and analysed vegetation maps. F.T. performed statistical analysis of map observations. F.T. and M.S.M. implemented the simulation models and conducted the simulations. F.T. analysed the results and prepared figures, tables and videos. A.H., F.T., R.F., T.W. and J.G. wrote the manuscript. All authors have participated in discussion and editing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Franziska Taubert.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks B. Barzel, B. DeVries, R. Ewers and P. Marquet for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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  1. 1.

    Video on the dynamics of forest fragmentation in America using FRAG.

    Fragment size distributions (green bars: FRAG, line: observation from remote sensing) and the spatial patterns of fragments on a map of a selected sub-area of 900 ha is shown (FRAG, cleared sites are white and colours indicate fragment size, see Methods for details). For graphical purposes only, fragments < 10 ha are also shown.

  2. 2.

    Video on the dynamics of forest fragmentation in America using FRAG-B.

    Fragment size distributions (green bars: FRAG-B with dborder = 0.995, line: observation from remote sensing) and the spatial patterns of fragments on a map of a selected sub-area of 900 ha is shown (FRAG-B, cleared sites are white and colours indicate fragment size, see Methods for details). For graphical purposes only, fragments < 10 ha are also shown.

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