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The subtleties of tropical forest demise

"It's not just that tropical forests are being rapidly destroyed, but also that most of the remaining forests and nature reserves are being severely degraded," said William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, who co-edited the book along with Carlos Peres, a Brazilian biologist with the University of East Anglia, U.K.

"It's astonishing how insidious many of the threats are," said Peres. "We rely on satellite images or aerial photos to tell us how fast tropical forests are disappearing, but many of the new and emerging threats are virtually invisible, unless you're on the ground."

The editors define four categories of emerging threats to tropical forests: (1) Those that have only recently appeared, such as the virulent chytrid-fungus pathogen that is decimating rainforest amphibians throughout the tropical world. (2) Those that are growing rapidly in importance, such as destructive surface fires in tropical forests. (3) Those that are poorly understood, such as the impacts of global warming and other growing atmospheric alterations on tropical ecosystems. (4) Environmental synergisms, where two or more simultaneous threats—such as habitat fragmentation and wildfires, or logging and over hunting—dramatically increase local extinctions of tropical species.

"Many of the emerging threats to tropical forests become apparent only after exhaustive, long-term field studies," said Peres. "That's one of the reasons they're so universally underestimated. Even big parks and nature reserves are suffering in many important ways."

"We immediately notice when forests burn or trees come crashing down, but not when frogs disappear or plants stop reproducing because their critical pollinators have vanished," said Laurance.

The 23 chapters in the book span much of the tropical world, including South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania. In addition to documenting a range of new an
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Source:Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


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