Forest loss escalates biodiversity change

The loss of forests around the world is causing far reaching change, with significant gains and losses to the variety of animals and plants that live there, research has found.

The international study, led by the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, analysed biodiversity data spanning 150 years from more than 6,000 locations worldwide. 

Forest loss

Researchers found that as tree cover is lost from the world’s forests, animals and plants are responding to the transformation of their natural habitats. 

The research, published in the journal Science, shows that forest loss amplifies the gains and losses of biodiversity – the variety of plant and animal life found in a particular habitat – as well as the wider diversity and composition of ecosystems around the planet.

Biodiversity is always changing and the species we see on our forest walks today are likely to be different from the ones we saw growing up.

“We harnessed the power of generations of scientists’ recording data as they walk through forests. This allowed us to find signals amidst the noise and pick apart the influence of forest loss from the natural variation in biodiversity over time.

“Changes in the biodiversity of our planet’s forests matter because they echo how these landscapes look, the types of species they support and the benefits that forests provide for society such as clean air and water.

Gergana DaskalovaLead author and PhD student, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh 


Forests support around 80 per cent of all species living on land – from eagles, bluebells, beetles, squirrels and many more.

However, forests are being altered by human activities, including deforestation for the cultivation of agricultural crops or the conversion to rangeland for grazing cattle.

The study used biodiversity databases BioTIME and Living Planet, which brought together more than 5 million records of the numbers of different plants and animals and information on historic and contemporary peaks in forest loss.

Biodiversity responses

The team discovered both immediate and delayed effects of forest loss on ecosystems, indicating that biodiversity responds to human impacts in diverse ways and can happen across decades.

Some tropical areas were also found to experience more forest loss now than they have ever seen in the past, resulting in declining numbers of different animal species.

In North America and Europe, the greatest loss of forests often occurred centuries ago, experts say.  However, even small amounts of forest loss in the present day led to different biodiversity responses, resulting in gains in certain species and losses in others.

The pace at which biodiversity responds to forest loss was found to vary from a few years as is the case for many short-lived grasses, light-loving plants and insects, to decades for long-living trees and larger birds and mammals.

Humans are undoubtedly changing the planet. Yet, global analyses of how biodiversity is changing over time, like our study, are revealing biodiversity changes are nuanced and variable.

“With a better understanding of the different ways, both positive and negative, in which forest loss influences biodiversity, we can improve future conservation and restoration of global ecosystems.

Dr Maria DornelasCo-senior author, School of Biology , University of St Andrews

Only with collaborative science combining datasets from around the world can we assess both the state of the world’s forests, as well as the millions of plants and animals they support.

Dr Isla Myers-SmithCo-senior author, School of GeoSciences , University of Edinburgh

Related links

Journal paper    

School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh 

School of Biology, University of St Andrews  

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