Scientists unravel how and why Amazon trees die

A scientist from the University of Plymouth has contributed to new research showing what factors control tree mortality rates in Amazon forests and why tree mortality is increasing across the Amazon basin.

An international analysis found that the mean growth rate of tree species is the main risk factor behind Amazon tree death, with faster-growing trees dying off at a younger age.

These findings have important consequences for our understanding of the future of these forests, particularly as climate change tends to select fast-growing species. If the forests selected by climate change are more likely die younger, they will also store less carbon.

The study involved more than 100 scientists, including Lecturer in Environmental Science Dr Sophie Fauset, and is the first large scale analysis of the causes of tree death in the Amazon.

It was compiled using long-term records gathered by the international RAINFOR network and the results, published in Nature Communications, show that species-level growth rates are a key risk factor for tree mortality.

Dr Fauset said:

“This is the biggest study to date assessing the mortality rates of Amazonian trees. This is a really important research area as it is a crucial component of the Amazon forest carbon cycle. Having a better of idea of how different species die, and the spatial patterns of tree death, improves our understanding of how the Amazon forest ecosystem works.”


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Dr Sophie Fauset leaving the Nouragues Research Station in French Guiana (Credit: Sophie Fauset)

Tree mortality is a rare event so to truly understand it requires huge amounts of data. To that end, the RAINFOR network has assembled more than 30 years of contributions from more than 100 scientists.

It includes records from 189 one-hectare plots, each visited and monitored on average every three years. During each visit, researchers measure all trees above 10cm in diameter as well as the condition of every tree.

In total more than 124,000 living trees were followed, and 18,000 tree deaths recorded and analysed. When trees die, the researcher follows a fixed protocol to unravel the actual cause of death.

Lead author Dr Adriane Esquivel-Muelbert, of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research, said:

“Understanding the main drivers of tree death allows us to better predict and plan for future trends – but this is a huge undertaking as there are more than 15,000 different tree species in the Amazon.”

Dr David Galbraith, from the University of Leeds, added:

“We found a strong tendency for faster-growing species to die more, meaning they have shorter life spans. While climate change has provided favourable conditions for these species, because they also die more quickly the carbon sequestration service provided by Amazon trees is declining.”

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and included contributions from 10 UK universities as well as scientists from across South America in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and Venezuela.

Dr Beatriz Marimon from UNEMAT, who coordinates multiple plots in central Brazil, added:

“Now that we can see more clearly what is going on across the whole forest, there are clear opportunities for action. We find that drought is also driving tree death, but so far only in the South of the Amazon. What is happening here should serve as an early warning system as we need to prevent the same fate overtaking trees elsewhere.”

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