News FocusEcology

Probing Diversity's Complexity

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Science  20 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6092, pp. 286
DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6092.286

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Rainforests may be the conservationist's poster child, but they fall short as models of the true complexity of our planet's biodiversity. So says Peter Jørgensen, a botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, whose work promises to shake up our understanding of the distribution of tree species in tropical South America. The Madidi Project (see main text) charts the changes in tree communities in the mountains of Bolivia growing along an elevation gradient that plunges from above 6000 meters to 180 meters above sea level. By identifying all trees at least 10 centimeters in diameter within hundreds of research plots along this gradient, Jørgensen and his colleagues have built a database that allows them to examine spatial patterns of diversity in ways not possible from studies limited to rainforests, which tend to be comparatively homogeneous because they are confined to the lowlands.