Protected areas are needed across many countries to safeguard the diversity of dry forests, a wide-ranging survey has shown.
Data from a newly created database of tropical dry forests in the Americas – which, unlike tropical rain forests, shed their leaves in the dry season – shows that species are rarely present in more than one region.
The research, involving Edinburgh scientists, shows that each region contains species growing nowhere else.
The findings could help create a new scientific framework to plan the conservation of dry forests in the Americas.
Ahead of likely warming and drier climates in the tropics, conservation of unique dry forest species that have adaptations to heat and drought should be a global priority, researchers say.
Dry forests in Latin America are amongst the world’s most threatened tropical forests. In many countries, less than 10 per cent of their original extent remains.
This is much less than for many rain forests, such as the Amazon, which remains about 80 per cent intact.
Dry forests were the cradle of pre-Colombian civilisation in Latin America, and the source of globally important crops such as maize, beans, and tomato.
Despite this, and their widespread destruction, they have been long overlooked by scientists and conservationists.
Now, a team of more than 50 researchers from Latin American, the Caribbean, the UK and elsewhere, and led by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, known as the Latin American Seasonally Dry Tropical Forest Floristic Network (DRYFLOR), has developed a database of dry forest tree species.
The archive, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is based upon 1600 inventories across Latin America and the Caribbean.
In a study, published in the journal Science, the team shows that these dry forests contain almost 7,000 species of woody plants.
The results provide a scientific framework within which, for the first time, national decision makers can contextualise the significance of their dry forests at a regional and continental scale, scientists say.
This in-depth study of dry forests has shed light on the need to protect species in many regions, and should prove to be a valuable tool in conserving their biodiversity.