Forests as complex systems

Our trip to BCI was my first visit to a natural tropical forest. My study site is a planted forest in Sardinilla which was designed specifically to test biodiversity-ecosystem functioning. Diversity is controlled for in regularly spaced plots and the trees there have been growing for about 15 years. BCI is almost 100 years older (established in 1923) and is not only rich in tree diversity but also in other biotic diversity. My experience at BCI showed me two things: 1) measurements in a natural forest can be very challenging, and 2) there are many layers involved in the interactions between the components that make up a “forest”.

Several aspects of performing measurements in a natural forest came up during our trips. One was measuring dbh of a tree at breast height (~1.3 m) isn’t as straightforward as it looks. We came across many trees in the 50 ha plot and surrounding forest whose dbh at 1.3 m didn’t make sense because of their absolutely enormous buttresses. During Brian Sedio’s lecture, he demonstrated how tricky working with real data can be if singleton data is collected. Last but not least, I got a taste of what it’s like to track monkeys through a tropical forest. Not only did we trudge through branches, fallen leaves, lianas, spider webs, and uneven terrain in hot and humid weather, but the capuchins themselves were running away from us!

My research is being partially funded by the NSERC CREATE Forest Complexity Modelling (FCM) program. So, I try and think about how the forest is a complex system. By definition, a complex system is one which exhibits: 1) heterogeneity, 2) hierarchy, 3) self-organization, 4) openness, 5) adaptation, 6) memory, 7) non-linearity, and 8) uncertainty (Filotas et al. 2014, ESA). From Andy Jones’ lecture, we learned that among other things, aboveground plant organization is important in determining the soil microbial community composition, but moreso in the case of fungi (Barberan et al. 2014, Ecology Letters). This interesting fact demonstrates, for example, forest hierarchy because it is an example of elements at different levels of organization interacting to form the structures that characterize the system (Filotas et al. 2014, ESA).

Listening to all the invited speakers at BCI has helped me appreciate better how complicated forest ecosystems are. There are still so many questions about the forest we don’t know the answers to…

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