Seeing the wood to save the trees

The clouds part to reveal a sea of trees, wisps of mist snagging the canopy following the afternoon’s tropical rain. The trees extend as far as the eye can see: a vast bowl of varied and verdant greens, dotted here and there with red – the flowering trees of the Dipterocarp family. Some stand high over the canopy, reaching heights of 90 metres.

View of the tree canopy in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Courtesy of Dr Sabine Both.

This vista, which captures the diversity of the Bornean rainforest and greens the cover of New Phytologist 221:4, might also have greeted the pilot of a small plane who, in 1947, encountered the Maliau Basin while flying perilously close to its mountainous northern rim. Fortunately for us, such spectacular views are now easier to gain: Dr Sabine Both took the photo from the Maliau Rim Observation Tower, an hour’s walk from the Maliau Conservation Area research station.

Sabine’s research aims to untangle the characteristic features of trees that we find in the rainforest from the changes wrought in rainforest tree communities following disturbance by humans. Logging is an ever-present and immiment threat in the rainforests of south-east Asia, and in Borneo in particular. Much of the logging clears space for palm oil plantations.

Most rainforests aren’t clear-cut immediately, however. Usually, the trees with the highest timber value are logged first. The ‘selectively logged’ rainforest then continues to exist and grow for some time. Although substantially changed, particularly in the make-up of tree species present, the rainforest continues to function as an altered ecosystem – sequestering and storing carbon, producing biomass, and providing a habitat for wildlife.


“Adding knowledge to tree species and their functions helps to explain the importance of saving these beautiful rainforests.”

– Dr Sabine Both

Sabine and her research team are seeking to find out how the selective removal of trees from the rainforest changes its function as an ecosystem. With this knowledge they hope to predict how selective logging will impact how the rainforest functions in the future – allowing us a perspective much broader than that which greeted the pilot of a small plane, over 70 years ago.

Read the paper: Both, S., Riutta, T., Paine, C. E., Elias, D. M., Cruz, R. S., Jain, A., Johnson, D., Kritzler, U. H., Kuntz, M., Majalap‐Lee, N., Mielke, N., Montoya Pillco, M. X., Ostle, N. J., Arn Teh, Y., Malhi, Y. and Burslem, D. F. (2019) Logging and soil nutrients independently explain plant trait expression in tropical forestsNew Phytologist 221: 1853-1865. doi: 10.1111/nph.15444

Read the Commentary: Longo, M. and Keller, M. (2019) Not the same old(‐growth) forestsNew Phytologist 221: 1672-1675. doi: 10.1111/nph.15636

Dr Mike Whitfield
Development Coordinator
New Phytologist Trust

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