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Trees and forests| Trees and forests

Trees and forests| Trees and forests

Jingjing Liang.

There are an estimated 73.300 tree species on Earth. 9,000 of these species have yet been discovered. This was according to a global tree species count done by thousands of researchers who used Bletchley park’s second world War codebreaking techniques to assess the number of unknown species.

Researchers in 90 countries collected data on 38m trees. They sometimes walked for days and camped in remote areas to get there. The study revealed that there are approximately 14% more tree species than previously reported. A third of the undiscovered tree species could be endangered by human-driven changes to land use and climate.

It is a huge effort to document our forests worldwide, according to Jingjing Liang (lead author and professor of quantitative tree ecology at Purdue University in Indiana), USA. Counting tree species around the world is like a puzzle. There are many pieces. We worked together, each contributing our own piece.

Jingjing Liang.
Jingjing Liang. Photograph: Tom Campbell/Purdue University

Despite being the largest and most widely distributed organisms, there are still thousands upon thousands of trees to discover. 40% of these species are believed to be in South America. According to the paperPublication in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some of these undocumented species might have been known to the indigenous communities, but others, in the most remote regions, may not be known.

The Amazon basin seems to have the highest biodiversity of tree species at local levels, with 200 species per hectare. Researchers believe this may be due to the warmer, more humid environment that is better suited for supporting a wider variety of species.

Scientists used the Estimation of the frequency of Good-TuringThe codename was invented by Alan Turing and Irving Good, who were trying to crack German codes during the second World War.

The theory, which was Anne Chao, a Taiwanese statistician, developed the formulaThe study of undetected plants allowed researchers to identify rare events. Researchers could use data on rare species to find out if they occur. The code uses data on species that are only once or twice detected in the data to estimate the number undetected species.

When Liang found data about Alaska’s trees in an old drawer, he got the idea to make an inventory of all planets trees. He was so impressed by the results, he decided to make it his personal mission and get the data online. He then proposed to take an inventory of the entire world. He explained that people initially laughed at me.

Scientists are worried many tree species will disappear before they have been documented.
Scientists are concerned that many tree species could disappear before they are documented.Picasa/Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative

Although there is not much data available on the evolution of tree species over time, many species are at risk of extinction due to climate change and deforestation. Scientists worry that many species will disappear before they are documented.

Liang said that: We hope this paper provides us with benchmark data, so that we can see if the global number of tree species has been declining, particularly during our mass extinction.

We must not view the forest as a carbon reservoir or a resource for extracting carbon. Instead, we should see our forests as a habitat that hosts tens to thousands of species of trees. This biodiversity is something we must pay close attention to.

Dr Ruth Mitchell (a plant-soil ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland), was not involved in this research. She stated that even for large organisms, new species are still being discovered.

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It is exciting, but also very concerning, that we are losing so many biodiversity so quickly that we don’t even know about, she stated. This study highlights how diverse our forests are, and how much we still have to discover.

Martin Lukac from Reading University, a professor in ecosystem science, said that the paper showed that nearly half of the world’s tree species live in South America. This is a clear proof that we shouldn’t destroy the tropical forests.

He stated that the Amazon’s tree-species diversity has taken billions of year to accumulate. It would be reckless to try to eradicate it in a matter of years.

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