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Shrinking Forest Habitats Impact Global Ecosystems

Mar 21, 2015 11:35 AM EDT
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(Photo : Nick Haddad, NC State University)

It's no secret that human activity is transforming our world. For example, increasing development for agriculture or new communities is shrinking forest habitats, and new research shows that this is having a significant impact on global ecosystems.

According to findings published in the journal Science Advances, 70 percent of existing forest lands are within a half-mile of the forest edge, where encroaching urban, suburban or agricultural influences can cause any number of harmful effects - such as the loss of plants and animals.

What's more, habitat fragmentation - the division of habitats into smaller and more isolated patches - reduces the diversity of plants and animals by 13 to 75 percent, with the smallest, most isolated areas feeling the worst effects.

A team from North Carolina State University decided to track seven major experiments on five continents that examine habitat fragmentation, which covered ecosystems ranging from forests to savannas to grasslands.

"The results were astounding. Nearly 20 percent of the world's remaining forest is the distance of a football field - or about 100 meters - away from a forest edge. Seventy percent of forest lands are within a half-mile of a forest edge. That means almost no forest can really be considered wilderness," researcher Dr. Nick Haddad explained in a statement.

And this fragmentation not only results in loss of plant and animal life, but the team found that it also changes how ecosystems function, and reduces the amounts of nutrients retained and the amount of carbon sequestered, among other things.

What's more, these negative effects worsen over time.

"Some results showed a 50 percent or higher decline in plant and animals species over an average of just 20 years, for example. And the trajectory is still spiraling downward," Haddad said.

But the researchers note that these negative effects of habitat fragmentation can be mitigated - for example, by conserving and maintaining larger areas of habitat, increasing agricultural efficiency, and focusing on urban design efficiencies.

 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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