Sri Lankan elephant amnesty will lead to poaching, warn conservationists

This was written for the environmental news website; the original can be found here.

Environmentalists have responded with alarm to a proposed amnesty permitting the registration of illegally captured elephants in Sri Lanka. Recent reports in Sri Lankan media have outlined the proposal, stating that during the amnesty period it would be possible to register elephant calves for a fee of about $7,600.

Elephants are closely linked with Sri Lankan history and culture, and are considered sacred in both Buddhism and Hinduism. But the situation for elephants in the country is complicated. The increasing human population on the small island nation has resulted in the loss and fragmentation of elephant habitat. Sri Lankan elephants are classified as Endangered, with only an estimated 2,500–4,000 individuals left in the wild. Despite their threatened status, elephants frequently come into conflict with people over shared resources, resulting in both elephant and human deaths.

An Asian elephant calf stays close to mom. Photo courtesy of Amoghavarsha.An Asian elephant baby stays close to mom. Photo courtesy of Amoghavarsha.

“Nearly 60% of the 150-250 [elephant] deaths reported annually are due to retaliatory killing by people,” Ajay Desai, Co-Chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, told

At the same time, a number of factors combine to make elephants highly sought after.

“There is a new set of wealthy people who want to keep elephant calves for prestige. Therefore there is a heavy demand, especially for elephant calves,” Vimukthi Weeratunga, Director of Operations at the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), a Sri Lankan NGO, told

An impressive herd of 100+ Asian elephants. Photo courtesy of Amoghavarsha.
An impressive herd of Asian elephants. Photo courtesy of Amoghavarsha.

Prithiviraj Fernando, Chairman and Scientist at the Centre for Conservation and Research, agrees, stating, “In the past elephants were owned by nobility and this has some bearing on the desire to keep elephants today as it has a connotation of higher social status/prestige/wealth.”

But there is more to it than simply prestige; the importance of elephants in many cultural and religious ceremonies makes them lucrative possessions.

“Captive elephant owners make big money by renting elephants for many events, and in the tourism industry for elephant rides. Rent of an elephant for tourism can claim $1,500-2,000 per month,” Weeratunga explained.

The capture of elephants from the wild is prohibited by law, and registration is required for all calves born in captivity. Critics fear that by permitting the registration of all calves, regardless of origin, the amnesty will fuel illegal poaching, with a longer period of amnesty resulting in more captures.

An Asian elephant enjoying the water. Photo courtesy of Amoghavarsha.
An Asian elephant enjoying the water. Photo courtesy of Amoghavarsha.

“It will contribute to the trade [of illegal elephants] as captors will capture large number of calves during the amnesty period to obtain legal papers,” Weeratunga said.

The motivation behind the amnesty is not clear. According to Fernando, the aim is “supposedly the registering of all elephants in captivity and prevention of future illegal captures.” However, some suspect that it is intended to benefit only a few people. Critics have raised the possibility that elephant owners with connections to those in power may be behind the scheme. The amnesty would make it possible for these people to legitimize any illegally held animals, and effectively start again with a clean slate.

Opposition to the amnesty is growing, and Weeratunga hopes that pressure from groups such as the EFL can prevent it altogether.

“EFL together with a few other environmental groups have been following this issue for some time and we are in the process of preparing legal documents to file a case against the authorities on this issue.”


Canopy crusade: world’s highest network of camera traps keeps an eye on animals impacted by gas project

This was a super cool interview to do for, the original can be found here.

Oil, gas, timber, gold: the Amazon rainforest is rich in resources, and their exploitation is booming. As resource extraction increases, so does the development of access roads and pipelines. These carve their way through previously intact forest, thereby interrupting the myriad pathways of the species that live there. For species that depend on the rainforest canopy, this can be particularly problematic. Home ranges become fragmented and species movements across habitats are disrupted, affecting the behavior, health, and genetic diversity of these species and consequently impacting broader ecosystem processes within the forest as a whole.

Tremaine Gregory climbing in a canopy bridge. Photo credit: Farah Carrasco/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Now, a pioneering conservation project in the Peruvian Amazon is collaborating with a gas company to develop an effective way of mitigating some of these impacts. Natural canopy bridges have been left standing across a gas pipeline, and are being monitored by the highest network of camera traps ever deployed.

“In this project we are using more cameras, for more time, higher in the canopy than ever before. I can guess why other projects have not been so ambitious: placing a camera 100 feet above the forest floor is not easy!” Gregory says.

Gregory and her team have already recorded a huge range of species using the bridges (such as primates, kinkajous and anteaters), including one mammal species never before seen in the region. caught up with Tremaine Gregory, a Research Scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who is leading the project.


Mongabay: What is your background and how did you become a tropical biologist?

Gregory: I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Spanish, a Master’s in Anthropology, and a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology. I recently told someone that I am a neotropical primate behavioral ecologist and conservation biologist, although in Peru I tend to refer to myself as a “mono-loga.” I came to this career through many twists and turns (Peace Corps volunteer, Spanish medical interpreter, wild trout biologist, veterinary assistant (of course), theatre technician), in search of a life that would be meaningful and fulfill both my dedication to understanding and conserving wildlife and as well as my love for adventure.

Mongabay: Your previous research investigated the little-known Guianan bearded saki monkey (Chiropotes sagulatus) in Suriname, can you tell us about what you found in that study? 

Gregory: For about six years I worked in Suriname studying both the bearded saki monkey and the white-faced saki monkey (Pithecia pithecia). My Master’s research contributed to our understanding of the evolution and niche divergence of these two species. During my dissertation research, I had the opportunity to spend 13 months in the field focusing on bearded saki ecology and social behavior. The bearded saki has been studied very little in continuous forest in the wild. This is largely due to the fact that these monkeys are exceedingly difficult to study—they travel through the huge, emergent trees at the top of the canopy, and they live in very large, fast moving groups. Trying to keep one eye on them while running across the forest floor can be a challenge. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose track of 40 monkeys. My research explored how the monkeys potentially use the forest’s complex topography strategically to reduce the costs of travel. I’ve also contributed to our understanding of bearded saki social behavior, particularly with regards to the relationships between males. Male bearded sakis seem to be highly affiliative with one another, showing signs of very tight bonds. There is also evidence of sexual mimicry and other unique characteristics. I look forward to returning to Suriname someday to delve back into many fascinating questions that remain about this group of monkeys.

Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: What is the main aim of your current work in Peru?

Gregory: The goal of my current work in the Peruvian Amazon is to provide scientifically sound recommendations to industrial development companies that operate in tropical forests to reduce their impact. I know that industrial development in the Amazon Basin will continue, and as a conservationist, I hope to do as much as possible to limit its impact.

In the Lower Urubamba Region of Peru, I am working in an area where a natural gas pipeline is being constructed. In order to install the pipeline, a swath is cut through the forest. This swath can be over 16 meters (53 feet) wide, and it eliminates connectivity of the forest canopy overhead. The good news is that the pipe is buried and the swath is reforested, but during the five to ten years it takes for the canopy to reconnect, arboreal animals can become isolated on either side. Some animals may venture down to the ground to cross, but doing so can be dangerous, and our results so far suggest that they do so very rarely. In order to reduce the fragmentary effect caused by the pipeline swath, the company with which we are working agreed to leave connections above the pipeline to preserve some connectivity. We call the connections “natural canopy bridges” because they are made up of the branches of the largest trees that connect over the top of the swath. Before pipeline construction began, I walked back and forth along the proposed pipeline path with my team mapping out locations where it looked like the branches would connect after clearing. We then worked with the construction company to preserve the trees that connected. Leaving the trees can be challenging for operations, so this required careful coordination. In the end, there were 13 canopy bridges, and we are now testing whether animals use them.

Black-capped capuchin monkey (Sapajus apella). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Black-capped capuchin monkey (Sapajus apella). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: How widespread are infrastructure development projects in the Amazon, such as the one you are working on?

Gregory: Most of the Western Amazon is zoned for hydrocarbon exploration (Finer et al. 2008; Finer and Orta-Martínez 2010), and in 2012, over half of the Peruvian Amazon was under concession (there are detailed maps available on the Perupetro website: However, while these numbers may seem surprising, it is important to understand that within a concession block, a corporation will generally do some seismic research and drill a few exploratory wells, impacting a relatively small proportion of this area (see “Effective Area of Work” on Perupetro maps). In fact, pockets of natural gas or oil large enough to lead to the construction of a pipeline are very rare. Industry environmental standards have become strict, and many corporations use the off-shore model for their operations. This model simply means that corporations do not create access roads but instead treat operations camps as if they were “offshore,” and all access is by helicopter. All of this is to say that hydrocarbon exploration and extraction activity has the potential to impact a large part of the Amazon Basin, and my research explores ways to keep that impact to as much of a minimum as possible.

Mongabay: Why is it important to ensure the connectivity of populations?

Gregory: There are many reasons why it is important to maintain canopy connectivity and gene flow between populations of animals. First of all, when populations become isolated, the gene pool shrinks. With reduced genetic diversity, animals are more susceptible to disease and inbreeding depression. This, in turn, affects their survival and can even lead to localized extinctions. Another problem with fragmenting the area used by a community of animals is that they lose access to resources. Animals have complex mental maps that help them remember the location of feeding resources and shelter in their environment. They also are likely to have knowledge of neighboring individuals or groups of animals—information important for territorial and mating decisions. When an animal’s or group of animals’ home range is divided, they lose access to those resources. The area they use shifts, and they are forced into unknown territory. This can affect survival by influencing nutrition and increasing stress through augmented search time for resources and conflict with novel groups of animals. Effects on arboreal animals can then affect the forest as a whole. Many primates, for example, are seed dispersers. This means that they eat fruits, swallow the seeds, and after the seeds pass through their gut, they drop them in a different location. This is an extremely important process that contributes to the survival of the fruit tree species, and from a broad perspective to the function of the ecosystem as a whole.

Peruvian night monkeys (Aotus nigriceps) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Peruvian night monkeys (Aotus nigriceps) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Bald-faced saki (Pithecia irorrata). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Bald-faced saki (Pithecia irorrata). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: Have camera traps been used in the forest canopy before? 

Gregory: In this project we are using more cameras, for more time, higher in the canopy than ever before. I can guess why other projects have not been so ambitious: placing a camera 100 feet above the forest floor is not easy! It took me and Farah Carrasco, my Peruvian collaborator, two weeks to place our 25 canopy cameras, and keeping them running for a year has been a major challenge. The conditions for the cameras are much harsher in the canopy than they are on the ground. More of our canopy cameras (we have another 55 cameras on the ground) have been invaded by ants, and they are exposed to more wind, constant sun and rain, and extremely tenacious animals like porcupines who enjoy gnawing on and opening them.

Mongabay: How do you install and monitor the camera traps?

Gregory: Installing camera traps in the high canopy is quite an adventure. When we decided we needed to monitor the canopy bridges with camera traps, we realized we needed to learn how to climb trees—tropical trees. Off we went to a tree climbing course in Panama. There we learned to use a seven-foot-tall sling shot to place a climbing line in a tree. But getting up into the tree was just the beginning. In some cases it took us upwards of five hours to figure out where the camera should go to capture the crossing point, transfer between branches to reach that point, then place and test the camera—all the while trying to remember not to drop anything. My dad and I designed a mounting system with two ball joints, allowing the camera to be angled in any direction. Cameras on the ground can just be bungeed to a tree trunk, but the canopy is a more complex, three dimensional world. I’m currently working on a manuscript that describes our methods in detail so that other researchers may benefit from what we’ve learned.

Mongabay: What is it like climbing such enormous trees?

Gregory: Climbing canopy trees is exhilarating, to say the least! As I bustle around juggling the cameras and ropes and things, I have to remind myself to stop, take in the view, and feel the breeze. I think the most fascinating part has been experiencing a world that I had only observed from below. After years of watching monkeys in the canopy through binoculars, it is an entirely different experience to be in the top of a tree. You realize that rather than a plane-like environment, like the forest floor, the canopy is a network of linear pathways, and a false move can be very costly.

Kinkajou, Potos flavus. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Kinkajou, Potos flavus. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: Have you been surprised by any of the camera trap footage, and have there been any unexpected species using the bridges?

Gregory: So many of the camera trap photos are breath-taking. I have to discipline myself to avoid spending all day marveling at photos of monkeys, kinkajous, anteaters, opossums, and many other animals. In addition to mammal species, we’ve had many photos of birds and even reptiles. I usually take a quick look at the photos while up in the tree to make sure the camera is working properly, and my guides are accustomed to hearing me exclaim over the photos. In camp in the evening, everyone gathers round to see what goodies we’ve brought back on the memory cards. One of our many exciting finds has been an arboreal dwarf porcupine species that was not known to occur within 800km of the study area. Others include some spectacular photos of saki monkeys and anteaters with their babies. These really blew me away. If you haven’t been up in the tree to see the camera, it’s hard to imagine that the animals are actually up so high.

The canopy bridge research team this past October.  Photo credit: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
The canopy bridge research team this past October. Photo credit: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: Do you know yet how successful the canopy bridges have been? Are they likely to be effective enough to mitigate all impacts of the pipeline on these arboreal species?

Gregory: Interestingly, arboreal animals were already using the bridges immediately after they were exposed by the construction activities. I thought it would take them some time to locate the crossing branches, but they had no trouble finding them. The bridges have been used by over 20 species of arboreal mammals, and we recorded over 1,000 crossing events in the first six months. Because the canopy was continuous before construction, we could not monitor all possible crossing branches in order to make before and after comparisons. The 13 bridges are spread over a five-kilometer (three-mile) area, so potential crossing options have been dramatically reduced, likely leading to fewer crossings, overall. I would therefore not say that the bridges have mitigated ALL impacts, per se. Our monitoring has also suggested that groups of primates may migrate away from the area during construction. However, we’ve also had very few recordings of crossings by arboreal animals on the ground, suggesting that the bridges have been a huge success, allowing animals to continue to access feeding resources, shelter, and social partners on either side of the swath. We plan to recommend that all pipeline projects in tropical rainforest habitats include canopy bridges.

Mongabay: What about in situations where the largest trees have already been felled – could there be a role for artificial bridges to help mitigate the impact of development projects that have already been completed?

Gregory: That’s a good question and one that many people have asked me. In future research, I hope to address that question. I imagine that animals would be inclined to use artificial bridges, particularly over roads, where there can be continuous activity. There are projects all over the world that are using different types of artificial bridges or crossing structures. One major difference, however, between natural bridges and artificial bridges is that animals must habituate to the artificial bridges. While we observed animals using the natural bridges within days after they were exposed, I understand that it can take many months for animals to feel safe enough to use artificial bridges. In this time, they lose access to resources on the other side. With proper planning, natural bridges should also be cheaper and require less maintenance. But certainly, where there are no bridges, artificial bridges are a good solution.

Mongabay: Being able to monitor species before, during and after the pipeline construction must be crucial to understanding the effectiveness of the bridges – was it difficult to initiate collaboration with the company building the pipeline? 

Gregory: While this is my first collaboration with a large corporation, the Center in which I work (the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability) has over a decade of experience around the world, with multiple corporations. We therefore have a good reputation both in the world of conservation and with industry. And while the goals of conservation and industry can be very different, I think there is a surprising amount of common ground to be found. Particularly in recent years, corporations have begun to pay more and more attention to conservation issues. While this project has been very challenging, I think it is a great example of the positive conservation outcomes that can be achieved through partnerships.

Mongabay: What are your future research plans? 

Gregory: With over one million camera trap photos from a year of data collection on this project, at the moment, I am focused on data analysis and publication. I also look forward to providing recommendations to corporations and the Peruvian government on the mitigation benefits of canopy bridges. After that, I look forward to exploring new ways to help corporations reduce their impacts. While I miss working in a national park, as I did as a graduate student, and find working in concession blocks with corporations to be much more challenging, I know that as a conservation biologist this line of research is where I can be most effective. But, if I can sneak in a trip to Suriname to catch sight of a bearded saki, I’m unlikely to pass it up!

Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Tremaine Gregory and Farah Carrasco.  Photo credit: Joe Maher/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Tremaine Gregory and Farah Carrasco. Photo credit: Joe Maher/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.


  • Finer M, Jenkins CN, Pimm SL, Keane B, Ross C. 2008. Oil and gas projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to wilderness, biodiversity, and indigenous peoples. PLoS ONE 3(8).
  • Finer M, Orta-Martínez M. 2010. A second hydrocarbon boom threatens the Peruvian Amazon: Trends, projections, and policy implications. Environmental Research Letters 5:1-10.


How long does tropical forest take to recover from agricultural clearance?

How best to restore degraded tropical forests, and what do they do when left to their own devices? A new paper seeks to find some of the answers to these questions…

Ecology for a Crowded Planet

Today our work on the recovery of secondary tropical forests got published in Royal Society Proceedings B. I’m really chuffed with this piece of work and in this blog I’m going to summarise what we found out and why I think it’s important. If you want to read the paper you can get it here.

Large areas of tropical forest have been cleared for agriculture over the last 100 years.

Why does this matter? Well it matters because these forests are vital for the unique biodiversity in the tropics but also because humans can benefit from them remaining intact.

Their loss causes extinction, release of carbon into the atmosphere – worsening climate change, and changes the ecosystem services we get from these forests.

Because of the importance of these forests their restoration is seen as a priority by some. There are valiant attempts to restore tropical forests in…

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Suriname’s secret species – 60 new to science found on biological expedition

A team of tropical biologists exploring the Amazon rainforest in Suriname have discovered 60 species new to science, and a wonderful gallery of some of them can be found here on the Guardian website. The expedition was part of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which was developed as a means of quickly assessing the biodiversity of little-explored regions in order to catalyse conservation action. Whereas some scientific research and biodiversity surveys can take months or years, rapid assessments are one way of intensively collecting data to get a snapshot of a region in a short amount of time. I think they look like amazing fun, but unfortunately lack the ID skills and expertise to have much hope of being useful on a RAP team. Dr Trond Larson, one of the biologists on this latest expedition, has written a wonderful piece describing the team’s Suriname experience, well worth a read here on Conservation International’s website.

Climate change pushing tropical trees upslope ‘exactly as predicted’

This article was first published on You can read the original here.

Tropical tree communities are moving up mountainsides to cooler habitats as temperatures rise, a new study in Global Change Biology has found. By examining the tree species present in ten one-hectare plots at various intervals over a decade, researchers found that the proportion of lowland species increased in the plots at higher elevations. The study, which was undertaken in Volcan Barva, Costa Rica, adds to a growing body of evidence that climate change is having an impact on species range distributions.

As climate change leads to warmer temperatures, species must respond if they are to survive. One way to do this is to migrate to new habitats that become suitable (and away from old ones that become unsuitable); another way is to adapt to hotter temperatures, but the speed of climate change may be too fast for some species to evolve to keep up. In some cases, if their physiology permits it, species may be capable of tolerating increases in temperature, but the likelihood of this is unknown.

The researchers first turned to herbarium records to calculate the preferred temperature of thousands of tree species, by looking at the geographic location of sampling locations and the temperature ranges they encompassed. With the temperature preferences for each species known, it was then possible to calculate a ‘community temperature score’ for each of the ten study plots, by averaging the preferred temperatures of all species present. A high community temperature score indicated an abundance of species found in the hot lowlands, whereas a low community temperature score reflected the presence of high altitude species from cooler habitats.

Looking up at a giant tree in the Costa Rican rainforest Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler /

Looking up at a giant tree in the Costa Rican rainforest Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler /

Plots were monitored over the course of a decade, and in nine of the ten plots the community temperature score increased. This indicates a shift in species composition, with the relative abundance of lowland species increasing over time “exactly as predicted under climate-driven upward species migrations,” Kenneth Feeley, lead author of the study with Florida International University and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, told

These changes corresponded to a mean thermal migration rate of 0.0065°C per year. However, over the past 60 years regional warming has been 0.0167°C per year, so the average migration rate observed across plots is not fast enough to keep up with the rate of warming. Still, encouragingly, when looked at individually, migration in 4 of the 10 plots did keep pace with regional warming.

Changes in species composition can be the result of different processes: species abundance can change without shifts in the overall range distribution, ranges can shift, and ranges can expand or contract. Identifying which of these underlies changes in species composition is important, because “depending on which of these processes is occurring, predictions for the future of ‘migrating species’ will vary from positive (under range expansions), to neutral (under range shifts) to dire (under range contractions),” Feeley explains.

To examine the specific causes of the compositional shifts in the study plots, the researchers measured stem growth, recruitment (the establishment of new trees), and mortality. They found that the main driver behind the increase in the relative abundance of lowland species upslope was in fact the disproportionate death of higher elevation species.

“Our results indicate that dieback is happening much faster than expansion. This means that species’ ranges will shrink. As ranges shrink, species will be more and more prone to extinction,” Feeley said.

Forested mountains in Costa Rica, where tropical trees communities are changing in response to climate change. Photo credit Kenneth Feeley

Forested mountains in Costa Rica, where tropical trees communities are changing in response to climate change. Photo credit Kenneth Feeley

An earlier study by Feeley and colleagues investigated related questions in the Peruvian Andes and came to similar conclusions, suggesting that their findings may be generally applicable across the tropics.

“The rates of migration that we have documented for the forests of Costa Rica are remarkably similar to what we found in the Peruvian Andes. The rates are also fairly close to the maximum rates of migration recorded for tropical trees during the warming period that followed the last glacial maximum. As such, it appears that what we are observing is trees moving at their fastest,” Feeley said. “In the past, this was fast enough; it is not fast enough now and it certainly won’t be fast enough in the future,”

While range contractions increase the likelihood of extinction for individual species, they also have a broader impact on patterns of biodiversity.

“As species experience dieback at the trailing edges of their distributions due to temperatures becoming intolerably hot, we will get decreases in local diversity through a process that has been termed ‘biotic attrition’,” Feeley said. If species are able to shift their ranges upslope, and not just suffer dieback in the lowlands, “then we may expect an increase in alpha (local) diversity in the mountains over long time periods as large numbers of species move up out of the lowlands and into the highlands. In this case, the real losses of biodiversity are expected in the lowlands where there is no known pool of ‘hot-adapted’ species waiting to fill in the lowlands after the existing species emigrate.”

Migrating to track climate change – either by moving up mountainsides or by moving towards the poles – is not easy: temperature is not the only factor that determines whether a habitat is suitable for a species, it is just the simplest to study in order to predict how species might respond to our warming world.

“Other climatic factors such as precipitation and seasonality can be hugely important for some species as can other non-climatic factors such as soil type and slope. Furthermore, biotic factors such as competition, predation, herbivory, disease, and mutualisms, may also be just as if not more important,” Feeley explains.

“The more realistic you make the models, and the more variables you consider, the number of future options available to species almost invariably decreases.” Even if species are capable of keeping pace with climate change and move upslope, they will still suffer a reduction in available habitat as land area decreases the further up the mountain they go.

“For example, in Costa Rica there is over 6.5 times as much land area between 1800 m and the highest plot at 2800 m as between 2800 m and the highest point in Costa Rica at 3820 m elevation,” the scientists write. Species already adapted to cooler high elevation temperatures will have nowhere to migrate into. And other problems also face tropical species that are a long way from a mountain to begin with.

“Within the tropics there is no latitudinal gradient in temperature. This is very important because it means that species cannot migrate towards higher latitudes to escape the heat but instead must migrate to higher elevations where it does get invariably cooler,” Feeley explains. “For lowland species in the middle of the Amazon basin where it is remarkably flat, this means that they will have to migrate huge, perhaps impossibly huge, distances before they experience any sort of relief.” Add to that the destruction of habitat, and movement becomes more challenging still.

“If species cannot migrate upslope, then their potential responses to climate change are greatly limited. Indeed, the only options left are to adapt or to acclimate. And given the speed at which the world is now changing, I think it is safe to say that adaptation is not a viable option, at least for large long-lived trees with long generation times. So the question becomes, can lowland trees acclimate to climate change?” Feeley posits. “The future of global diversity depends on the answer to this question but right now we are nowhere close to having that answer.”

Species in the lowland tropics inhabit one of the hottest regions on earth, so it is impossible to gauge their heat preferences above present-day temperatures by looking at their range distributions. However, understanding the upper limit of species’ heat tolerance would vastly improve predictions about species survival in a warming world.

Map showing the team's study plots (green squares) stretching from the lowlands up the mountain to a height of 2800 metres. Image credit Kenneth Feeley.

Map showing the team’s study plots (green squares) stretching from the lowlands up the mountain to a height of 2800 metres. Image credit Kenneth Feeley.

“By far the single most important factor is how much warming the species can tolerate. If they can tolerate a significant amount of warming, then our predictions are relatively sanguine. If species are intolerant of warming, then their future will be dependent on migrations and predictions for the tropics become very bleak,” explains Feeley.

To date, the majority of studies examining the potential impact of climate change have focused on North America and Europe.

“In general, there is a dearth of studies looking at the impacts of climate change on the distributions of tropical species. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of species are tropical,” Feeley told “We desperately need to fill the void and have more studies from the tropics. To do these studies we need a better and more systematic system of ecosystem monitoring plots and more importantly, but also harder, a better understanding of the complex abiotic (non-biological) and biotic (biological) factors that regulate species distributions and dynamics.”

Feeley and colleagues continue to monitor their study plots in Costa Rica and Peru, and are expanding their research to better understand the processes that determine species range distributions and movements.

“We are in the initial phase of a large-scale transplant study in which we are moving thousands of seedlings of dozens of tree species up and down the slopes of the Andes under various experimental treatments in order to identify the specific biotic and abiotic factors that limit their distributions,” he says. “Once we have this information we can build it into improved predictions for the fate of these species on a warmer planet.”

The best hope for conserving forests in the face of climate change, and climate-driven migrations, is to anticipate species movements, says Feeley.

“We need to expand the time scale of our thinking and determine not just where species are today but where they will be a hundred years from now. And then we need to protect both of those places and everything in between.”

Paper: Feeley K.J., Hurtado J., Saatchi S., Silman M.R., and Clark D.B. 2013. Compositional shifts in Costa Rican forests due to climate-driven species migrations. Global Change Biology, Available Online. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12300

Cutting edge technology, local communities, and chimpanzee conservation

This short film gives a great introduction to a fantastic project of the Jane Goodall Institute, working with local communities, and empowering them to monitor and conserve their forests. Using smartphones, forest monitors can collect photographic and geospatial data, which is then uploaded online for analysis. A wonderful success story, illustrating how field research is being revolutionised by technology.

From the Ground to the Cloud: Transforming Chimpanzee Conservation with High-Tech Tools