Comparing Vascular Plant Structures in the Cloud Forest

The outstanding rate of forest growth in tropical climates is just one example of how resilient forests can be. Globally, deforestation has been a hot topic of discussion as we’ve seen countless hectares of forest be cut down throughout the last two millennia. Luckily for both the forests and for wildlife, forests are one of the few natural environments that can be restored with some time and effort. Although, how long does it really take for a forest to rebuild itself after being cut down?

The young growth understory looks less dense and presumably less biodiverse, to the naked eye.

As most people know, Cloudbridge Nature Reserve historically should be a lush cloud forest, one of the few that exists in the entire world. Yet, following suit with the trend that we’ve seen on just about every continent, deforestation happened here, too. Beginning several decades ago until relatively recently, the property that is now known as Cloudbridge was almost completely converted to pasture land. The trees were few and far between, and the once wild landscape was transformed into cultivation land. After the property was purchased and turned into a nature reserve in 2002, the reforestation and regeneration process began.

Whereas the old growth displays a more dense understory and appears more complex.

Like mentioned above, tropical climates are exceedingly fast growing environments. Upon visiting Cloudbridge today, it might be hard to believe that just a mere 20 years ago, this now rich and vibrant forest was essentially non-existent. But can a forest really grow back in just 20 years? In discussions about deforestation, we’re used to hearing that these ecosystems can take several decades to regenerate back to normal, as the native flora and fauna have to put in effort to bounce back to life after being neglected. 

Population size discovered in Rowan’s study comparing the old growth [Jilg] and young growth [Mont] forests (Graph Rowan Ibbotson)
Within the Cloudbridge property, there are sections of forest that we consider “old growth”. It’s believed that this older growth forest has been left uncut within the last 80 or so years, while other sections of the forest that were cut have only had about 20 years to regrow. This older forest looks vastly different from the forest that’s been replanted and left to regenerate just in the last 20 years, right? Tempted by this question, researcher Rowan Ibbotson, a student from Cambridge University in England, sought out to understand how the forest has responded to the deforestation and how much regrowth has occurred. By comparing sections of the older growth forest with sections of the younger growth forest (at the same altitude), Rowan was able to look at the overall vascular plant structures and surroundings to see if there are the noticeable differences one would expect. Surprisingly, these forests have more in common than expected – that’s to say, the forest structure in the understory was essentially indistinguishable. To see what results she found, you can read her paper here.

Graph that exemplifies the accumulated richness from Rowan’s study. A complete graph would level off, demonstrating that the majority of species have been identified. The upward trajectory shown here demonstrates that there are many species yet to be seen (Graph Rowan Ibbotson).


Suggested Reading:

  • What’s the best way to reforest a deforested area? Well, the answer may be to just leave it alone! An intriguing study was published by the journal Science that explains how maybe the best thing humans can do to support a regrowing forest is nothing at all.
  • It’s supposedly a known «fact» that nutrients in the soil are completely vital to the growth rate and success of trees in forests. However, a study done from the Smithsonian Institution in Panama detected otherwise, suggesting that maybe we’re not as knowledgeable about forest ecosystems as we once thought.
  • You may have seen the word «understory» and been unsure what exactly that refers to. Really, that’s a blanket term for several different layers that make up the under parts of a forest. There are actually 7 layers of a forest, with potentially 9 in some cases, that create these beautiful and intricate ecosystems.

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