Ecological integrity of tropical secondary forests : concepts and indicators

Rosenfield, Milena F.; Jakovac, Catarina C.; Vieira, Daniel L.M.; Poorter, Lourens; Brancalion, Pedro H.S.; Vieira, Ima C.G.; Almeida, Danilo R.A. de; Massoca, Paulo; Schietti, Juliana; Albernaz, Ana Luisa M.; Ferreira, Marciel J.; Mesquita, Rita C.G.


Naturally regenerating forests or secondary forests (SFs) are a promising strategy for restoring large expanses of tropical forests at low cost and with high environmental benefits. This expectation is supported by the high resilience of tropical forests after natural disturbances, yet this resilience can be severely reduced by human impacts. Assessing the characteristics of SFs and their ecological integrity (EI) is essential to evaluating their role for conservation, restoration, and provisioning of ecosystem services. In this study, we aim to propose a concept and indicators that allow the assessment and classification of the EI of SFs. To this end, we review the literature to assess how EI has been addressed in different ecosystems and which indicators of EI are most commonly used for tropical forests. Building upon this knowledge we propose a modification of the concept of EI to embrace SFs and suggest indicators of EI that can be applied to different successional stages or stand ages. Additionally, we relate these indicators to ecosystem service provision in order to support the practical application of the theory. EI is generally defined as the ability of ecosystems to support and maintain composition, structure and function similar to the reference conditions of an undisturbed ecosystem. This definition does not consider the temporal dynamics of recovering ecosystems, such as SFs. Therefore, we suggest incorporation of an optimal successional trajectory as a reference in addition to the old-growth forest reference. The optimal successional trajectory represents the maximum EI that can be attained at each successional stage in a given region and enables the evaluation of EI at any given age class. We further suggest a list of indicators, the main ones being: compositional indicators (species diversity/richness and indicator species); structural indicators (basal area, heterogeneity of basal area and canopy cover); function indicators (tree growth and mortality); and landscape proxies (landscape heterogeneity, landscape connectivity). Finally, we discuss how this approach can assist in defining the value of SF patches to provide ecosystem services, restore forests and contribute to ecosystem conservation.