A Treeless Forest


Riley Fortier

Conservation Fellow

Riley is a plant biologist interested in the ecology and succession of tropical forests. His love for the tropics flourished in Costa Rica and Panama where he worked as an environmental educator and participated in various botanical research projects. He has also helped lead tropical ecology and conservation field courses in Peru, where he fell in love with the Amazon in particular. Now, Riley is a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami and plans to conduct research in the Peruvian Amazon. Aside from his research, Riley is an avid photographer and wants to help build a connection between people and plants through photography.

Learn more about Riley Fortier

July 7, 2021

A Treeless Forest


Collapsing to the floor and rattling the earth, an ancient, 50-meter tree now lays on its side below the intense tropical sun. The residual hole in the canopy instantly exposes the once-shaded understory, and the race is on. A seed from the massive kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) germinates almost immediately and springs into action, shooting for the sky. It races against clambering vines that cover nearby tree trunks, while surrounding trees begin to stretch their branches into thin air, eventually closing the canopy once again. This natural disturbance and rapid growth is an important cycle in the Amazon rainforest. Like the kapok tree, many plant species rely on natural disturbances to reach their incredible sizes. Gaps also provide important habitat for certain animal species, and fallen trees provide vital food for countless decomposers.

A huge kapok tree standing behind a Spanish cedar, or cedro (Cedrela odorata), two valuable timber species. Photo by the author.

Unfortunately, logging increases the frequency of this once-sporadic disturbance and disrupts natural patterns of forest succession. The complete removal of trees also compromises the forest’s ability to recycle its materials and threatens the Amazon’s incredible biodiversity. Logging in the Amazon also has a huge carbon footprint, releasing 80 gigatons of carbon every year into an already warming atmosphere. Illegal logging complicates things even more, making it particularly challenging to manage the timber industry and ensure the integrity of protected areas. Primary forests in national parks and conservation areas frequently fall victim to illegal loggers.

A chainsaw begins the process of felling a tree. Photo by Brian Griffiths.

After a forest has been logged, many animals are able to find refuge in nearby forests. Plants, however, lack the luxury of mobility and are forced to adapt to a new life. The secondary forest habitat left by logging is unusable by many species, and forests that were subject to intense timber extraction are merely shells of their former selves. Many species of trees, for example, need dense, intact forest for their seeds to germinate. Without the presence of huge trees and a tall, dense canopy, many tree species simply can’t survive. 

Shihuahuaco (Dipteryx micrantha), one of the most valuable timber trees in the Amazon. These days, the biggest ones are only found in remote, well protected forests. Photo by the author.

In order to better understand the ecological consequences of timber extraction in the Amazon, we need to monitor logged forests more closely. By doing so, not only can we identify the exact species of plants that are lost due to logging, both directly and indirectly, but we can also track long-term changes in the forest. How is succession in a logged forest different from succession in a pristine forest? Will a secondary forest ever contain the biodiversity it once had? How long will it take for trees in secondary forests to reach the enormous sizes we see in primary forests? These are questions that scientists are still trying to answer. As an ecologist, I hope to help answer them by setting up a permanent forest monitoring plot in a logged forest in Madre de Dios, Peru. Permanent plots are the gold standard to study forest dynamics, where we measure and identify every plant in a plot across multiple years. We can monitor how fast trees grow, calculate how much carbon the forest sequesters, survey its biodiversity, and compare it to nearby, unlogged forests. Hopefully, we will develop a better idea of how tropical forests recover from logging, and use this knowledge to help inform management and conservation strategies in the Amazon and beyond.


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