July 25, 2012

SIU researcher part of tropical biodiversity study

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is a member of a large team of international scientists whose work points to declining biodiversity in protected tropical areas around the world.

Ulrich Reichard, an associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts, is one of more than 200 scientists who worked on the study. Their findings are published today (July 25) the scientific journal "Nature."

The paper, titled "Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas," asserts that many of the world's protected tropical areas are struggling to maintain the biodiversity that is so important to their well-being. These areas, which some team members refer to as "arks" of biodiversity for their potential in preserving the many native species there, are subject to many threats. These threats include deforestation and encroachment from illegal colonists, hunters and loggers.

Researchers sought to address whether measures available during the last two decades can save the biodiversity in these areas, Reichard said. The article's lead author, Professor William Laurance, from James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, invited Reichard to participate.

"Bill invited scientists from around the globe to provide their long-term experiences with environmental changes in their long-term tropical forest study sites," Reichard said. An area with which Reichard is strongly familiar, Khao Yai National Park in Thailand, met the strict criteria for inclusion in the study.

"I have worked there for the past 23 years and so have a couple of other researchers who provided information as well," Reichard said. "The criteria were strict for a place to be included, because there had to be multiple independent research groups in one place to provide information on long-term trends/changes. This was a measure, I believe, to allow cross-checking trends instead of gathering rather anecdotal data from single research groups."

With a strong set of data from each site, researchers could tackle questions about long-term effects of human efforts to protect biodiversity, Reichard said. What they found was disturbing. "Not surprisingly, the long-term data shows that habitat disruption, hunting and forest product exploitation are the strongest predictors of forest health," he said. "This is not an entirely new insight but the difference really is that here hard data is at hand to show the different trends instead of guesstimating long-term effects."

"Perhaps something less obvious was the finding that changes immediately outside a reserve have an immediate, strong influence on what happens in a reserve," Reichard said.

Reichard's work focuses on the behavioral ecology of white-handed gibbons, which he studies at Khao Yai National Park. He has studied the primates for more than two decades, looking at their feeding behavior, night sleeping habits, singing and their cognitive abilities. The primates live in pairs or small multimate groups, and Reichard has 14 groups he studies -- the largest sample of habituated (tolerant) white-handed gibbon groups in the world.

The gibbons were among the more than 30 different categories of species living within protected areas across the tropical Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific studied by the team. Species ranged from flora such as trees to fauna such as butterflies, primates and large predators.

The team estimated how these groups' numbers changed during the past 20 to 30 years, while also examining the environmental changes that might threaten the reserves. Laurance said the research showed while most reserves were helping to protect their forests, about half were struggling to maintain their original biodiversity in many categories. These categories include large predators and other large-bodied animals, many primates, old-growth trees, as well as stream-dwelling fish, amphibians, among others.

Laurance said humans must do a better job in protecting the reserves.

"We have no choice," Laurance said. "Tropical forests are the biologically richest real estate on the planet, and a lot of that biodiversity will vanish without good protected areas."