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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Mega El Niño's change the playing field for culturally important tree species and hence the foundation for human-nature interactions in tropical forests

Axelsson, Petter; Franco, FM; Lussetti, Daniel; Grady, Kevin C; Ilstedt, Ulrik


Humans have interacted with trees for millennia and the strength of such interactions determines the long-term social values of trees and forests. Such ecocultural linkages could be important to promote during reforestation efforts, potentially helping to turn the tide on the current rapid extinction of cultural and biological diversity. In addition, predicting the fate of ecoculturally important species to changing climates may help guide tree species selection best-suited to future climates. We assessed the vulnerability of four ecoculturally important tree species native to Southeast Asia to an extreme drought: Koompassia excelsa, Nephelium lappaceum, Shorea fallax and Shorea leprosula. These species provide distinct and unique products, and Koompassia excelsa is well-represented in local mythological stories and considered a Cultural Keystone Species (CKS). We used two complementary approaches: 1) an experimental common garden and 2) naturally occurring wild trees growing in a secondary forest and compared the performance of trees before, after, and during the 2016 El Niño event with record breaking low precipitation and high temperatures. We found that mortality of the CKS K. excelsa in the common garden, along with mortality and growth of wild trees were unaffected by the El Niño drought. In contrast, young trees of N. lappaceum and S. fallax planted in the common garden had mortality 4 and 3 times higher, respectively, during the El Niño drought compared to normal years. Growth rate of S. fallax in the wild was also significantly lower during the El Niño drought and this effect was particularly pronounced in highly disturbed forests. Our results demonstrate that the impact of extreme climatic events, that are predicted to become more common with climate change, on culturally important tree species is species specific. Management of such species may thus need species specific measures to maintain viable populations and hence provide the basic physical settings for human-nature interactions and associated cultural identities to persist. In this context, our findings that cultural keystone species such as K. excelsa could be drought tolerant is noteworthy, as investing on such species could prove to be beneficial for both local cultures and conservation of native ecosystems and biodiversity.

Published in

Trees, Forests and People
2021, volume: 5, article number: 100109

Authors' information

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies
Franco, FM
University Brunei Darussalam
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management
Grady, Kevin C
Northern Arizona University (NAU)
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG15 Life on land
SDG13 Climate action

UKÄ Subject classification

Climate Research
Forest Science

Publication Identifiers


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