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    Author(s): Ariel E. Lugo; Oscar J. A. Martínez; Ernesto Medina; Gerardo Aymard; Tamara Heartsill Scalley
    Date: 2020
    Source: Advances in Ecological Research, Volume 62.
    Publication Series: Book Chapter
    PDF: Download Publication  (2.0 MB)

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    Novelty in Tropical Forests


    We review literature relevant to assessing the future of tropical forests and supplement the review with new data from the lowlands of Venezuela. Compared to today, future tropical forests will have a higher level of novelty, defined as the degree of dissimilarity of a system relative to a historical baseline. Processes of succession and evolution generate novelty in forests and have done so for millennia. Under increasing human activity and climate change, the rate of generation of novelty has increased and the resulting forests are termed novel forests to distinguish them from historical forests. Historical forests are less exposed to anthropogenic disturbances and operate at slower levels of novelty generation. Acclimation, adaptation, changes in species composition and dominance, and changes in the proportions of species in communities are the responses of the biota to climate change and anthropogenic disturbances. Therefore, novelty contributes to the persistence of tropical forests in spite of increasing levels of human activity. Novel forests are similar to historical forests in terms of structure but they are younger, they have a faster turnover of mass and chemical elements, and different species composition. Historical species assemblages cannot cope with the altered environments that result from chronic anthropogenic disturbances. The dominant species in novel forests tend to be, and function as, pioneer species. High levels of species dominance in novel forests influence the proportions of chemical elements, which when coupled to species traits and attributes, help explain how novel forests cope with the conditions that result from anthropogenic activities. Novelty is more common in the tropics than in other latitudinal regions, and within the tropics, it is more common in islands where human activity is more intense than in continents. Novel tropical forests in islands have greater representation and dominance of introduced species than novel forests in continents, where native species with wide geographic distributions dominate. Regardless of geography, novel tropical forests share similar attributes and functioning. The adaptability of novel forests to extreme conditions created by human activity signals a future for tropical forests that is different from predictions of constant degradation, homogenization, and loss of biodiversity. Instead, a process of recombination of species (all taxa) into new species assemblages maintains structure, function, physiognomy, species richness, and ecological services. This remixing initially involves loss of large organisms, certain groups of species, and loss of old-growth attributes of forests. Some of these losses can be reversed through succession, assuming there is sufficient time to restore depleted stores such as soil organic matter. Continued environmental change will stimulate continued remixing of species, loss of vulnerable species, gains of less vulnerable ones, and more dissimilarity with historical forests. Novel forests are an answer to the changes induced by climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances, and as such require conservation measures, because as they mature, novel forests usually diversify and help restore lost biodiversity. We also review strategies to conserve biodiversity and optimize ecological services using novel forest succession.

    Publication Notes

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    • This article was written and prepared by U.S. Government employees on official time, and is therefore in the public domain.


    Lugo, Ariel E.; Martínez, Oscar J. A.; Medina, Ernesto; Aymard, Gerardo; Heartsill-Scalley, Tamara. 2020. Novelty in the tropical forests of the 21st century. Tropical Ecosystems in the 21st Century, Advances in Ecological Research, Volume 62, 53-116.


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    Caribbean, Los Llanos, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Novel forests, Historical forests, Succession, Secondary forests, Pioneer species, Species dominance, Plant traits, Neotropics, Anthropocene

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