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The genus Cecropia: A biological clock to estimate the age of recently disturbed areas in the neotropics

Zalamea P.C., Heuret P., Sarmiento C., Rodríguez M., Berthouly A., Guitet S., Nicolini E.A., Delnatte C., Barthélémy D., Stevenson P.R.. 2012. PloS One, 7 (8) : 7 p..

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042643

Forest successional processes following disturbance take decades to play out, even in tropical forests. Nonetheless, records of vegetation change in this ecosystem are scarce, increasing the importance of the chronosequence approach to study forest recovery. However, this approach requires accurate dating of secondary forests, which until now was a difficult and/or expensive task. Cecropia is a widespread and abundant pioneer tree genus of the Neotropics. Here we propose and validate a rapid and straightforward method to estimate the age of secondary forest patches based on morphological observations of Cecropia trees. We found that Cecropia-inferred ages were highly correlated with known ages of the forest. We also demonstrate that Cecropia can be used to accurately date disturbances and propose twenty-one species distributed all over the geographical range of the genus as potential secondary forest chronometer species. Our method is limited in applicability by the maximal longevity of Cecropia individuals. Although the oldest chronosequence used in this study was 20 years old, we argue that at least for the first four decades after disturbance, the method described in this study provides very accurate estimations of secondary forest ages. The age of pioneer trees provides not only information needed to calculate the recovery of carbon stocks that would help to improve forest management, but also provides information needed to characterize the initial floristic composition and the rates of species remigration into secondary forest. Our contribution shows how successional studies can be reliably and inexpensively extended without the need to obtain forest ages based on expensive or potentially inaccurate data across the Neotropics. (Résumé d'auteur)

Mots-clés : forêt tropicale; forêt secondaire; détermination de l'âge; cecropia; organisme indicateur; zone tropicale; méthode; dégradation de l'environnement; déboisement; déforestation

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