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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Counting Trees

Counting Trees

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Tuesday, July 19, 2016/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, photography, sustainability, environment

                  Tropical Rainforest Tree Biodiversity, Peru  (credit: Field Museum of Natural History)

Attempting to identify all the tree species in the Amazon rainforest is a very big job. With numbers now exceeding 11,000 species, the first specimens were collected in the early 18th Century, the work to find new ones continues. Ecologists with Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the Naturalis Biodiveresity Center in the Netherlands, expect 4-6,000 species still remain to be found.

Publishing in Nature Magazine, the Dutch and Americans report:

530,025 unique Amazon tree collections dating from 1707 to 2015 totalling 11,676 tree species, in 1225 genera, and 140 families have been identified. These figures support estimates of potentially 16,000 tree species based on data from the Amazonian Tree Diversity Network.  

In making their announcement, the researchers admit the task they chose was difficult, almost like the Greek story of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up a mountain. Based on how many new species are identified each year, they say it may require an additional 300 years to identify the last unknown Amazonian tree species.

The scale of this massive biodiversity is hard to contemplate but a topic of long-term ecological interest. How did all this complexity evolve and what is the reason for so much species diversity? Is one tree more important when another or just the random result of a given seedling's ability to survive and grow into the canopy? Is the species diversity a sign Amazonian rainforests will be more resilient or vulnerable to climate change?

Plant exploration to find a new tree species is hard requiring the talents of a mountaineer, patience, and the ability to ignore heat and bugs. The development of rapid inventories is helping in the search:

A research project stretching across more than 600 years to identify all the trees in the Amazon may still not answer the ecological questions about all their diversity.



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