Long-lived trees: Pioneers of the forest

Words from duo Formafantasma, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin

Forests are a vital component of the global climate system, particularly regarding the fluxes of carbon and water. Tropical forests are hotspots in this context, and thus their future fate could have strong implications for livelihoods and feedbacks to the climate. Forests are key targets for biodiversity conservation.

The composition of a tropical forest depends on how each tree species balances two different sets of trade-offs over time:

  1. Growth versus survival. For example, one type of tree might grow fast but die young

  2. Stature versus reproduction. Another might grow tall but reproduce leisurely

Studies show that trees that grow fast, live long and reproduce slowly, known as long-lived pioneers, store the majority of carbon in tropical forests. Therefore long-lived pioneers are a unique group. They grow fast, helping to pioneer new patches of forest. But they also grow old, allowing them to reach great stature.

Long-lived pioneers include species such as mahogany, Brazil nut trees and Ceiba pentandra, which are visible far above the rest of the canopy because they grow fast (at up to twice the speed of plants lower in the canopy) for hundreds of years.

Cambio, from the medieval Latin cambium, ‘change, exchange’, is an ongoing investigation conducted by Formafantasma into the governance of the timber industry. The evolution of this form of commerce over time, and its tentacular expansion across the globe, has made it difficult to regulate.

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