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Half of all Amazonian tree species may be globally threatened

ABOVE: Traditional slash and burn agriculture (credit: Dr Hans ter Steege)

More than half of all tree species in the world’s most diverse forest - the Amazon - may be globally threatened, according to an international research project involving UEA.

A new study, published today in the journal Science Advances, compared data from forest surveys across the Amazon with maps of current and projected deforestation to estimate how many tree species have been lost, and where.

It reveals that the Amazon could harbour more than 15,000 tree species, of which between 36 and 57 percent are likely to qualify as being globally threatened under IUCN Red List of Threatened Species criteria.

But the study also suggests that Amazonian parks, reserves, and indigenous territories, if properly managed, can protect most of the threatened species.

ABOVE: Tree species - Gustavia Hexapetala, Virola Surinamensis and Psychotria Poeppigiana (credit, Dr Hans ter Steege)

The findings are announced by a global research team comprising 158 researchers from 21 countries, led by Dr Hans ter Steege of Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands and Dr Nigel Pitman of the Field Museum in Chicago, USA.

The team had previously reported in Science that the Amazon may be home to more than 15,000 tree species. The new study estimates that up to 8,690 of those species may face extinction.

Because the same trends observed in Amazonia apply throughout the tropics, the researchers argue that most of the world's 40,000 tropical tree species likely face the same risk.

Prof Carlos Peres from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “Forests in the Amazon have been declining since the 1950s, but there was a poor understanding of how this has affected populations of individual species. Our research estimates that more than half of all species may face extinction.

“Fortunately protected areas and indigenous territories now cover over half of the Amazon basin, and likely contain sizable populations of most threatened species.

“But parks and reserves will only prevent extinction of threatened species if they suffer no further degradation. Amazonian forests and reserves still face a barrage of threats - from dam construction and mining to wildfires and droughts intensified by global warming.”

Lead researcher Dr Nigel Pitman of the Field Museum in Chicago (US) said: “We aren’t saying that the situation in the Amazon has suddenly gotten worse for tree species. We’re just offering a new estimate of how tree species have been affected by historical deforestation, and how they’ll be affected by forest loss in the future.”

ABOVE: Forests in the Amazon have been declining since the 1950s (Credit, L-R: O Van Dam, Emilio Vilanova and William Milliken) 

Co-author Dr Hans ter Steege of Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, said: “In recent decades Amazon countries have made major strides in expanding parks and strengthening indigenous land rights. Our study shows this has big benefits for biodiversity.”

“It’s a battle we’re going to see play out in our lifetimes,” said William Laurance from James Cook University in Australia.

“Either we stand up and protect these critical parks and indigenous reserves, or deforestation will erode them until we see large-scale extinctions,” he added.

ABOVE: Fortunately protected areas and indigenous territories now cover over half of the Amazon basin. (Credit, William Milliken and Bruce Hoffman).

‘Estimating the global conservation status of more than 15,000 Amazonian tree species’ is published in Science Advances on Friday, November 20, 2015.

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