Logo der DFG-Forschergruppe: Tropischer Bergregenwald; TMF = Tropical Mountain Forest; DFG = Deutsche ForschungsGemeinschaft

 Objectives of the Research Unit

Tropical mountain rainforests are hotspots of biodiversity, but nevertheless are very labile ecosystems. The major threat originates from increasing land-use by a continuously growing human population.

The German research unit joins biologists, geoscientists, researchers in forestry and social anthropology in a multidisciplinary and comprehensive ecosystem study of a mountain rainforest in South Ecuador that extends from about 1200 to 3000 m a.s.l. In this area the pristine forest can be compared with several stages of its degradation originating from large- and small-scale human impact. In that respect the study objects are secondary forests, agricultural land and wide areas of former agricultural use which have been abandoned because of an ultimate takeover by extremely aggressive weeds. In addition to the analysis of the various ecosystems, a major aim of the research is to develop and implement methods of reforestation of the abandoned areas with indigenous trees. The findings will also allow conclusions for a sustainable use of the indigenous forest.

Introduction I General Introduction (pfd-file, 2,1 MB) | Recent Progress Reports

Study Area I Field Station | Steps of Investigation I Projects I


The mountain forests of Southern Ecuador belong to the worldwide hotspots of biodiversity. In spite of the adverse living conditions in that zone, the forests are heavily threatened by non-sustainable ways of land-use. With respect to deforestation Ecuador is ranking second under the states of South America. In most cases the natural forest is cleared for agricultural land-use, mainly for the establishment of pastures. Fire is used for clearing of the forest and for the maintenance of the pastures as well and this strongly favors growth of aggressive weeds. Sooner or later a major portion of the agricultural land has to be abandoned due to the complete takeover of the herbaceous and woody weeds. New areas have to be cleared by slash and burn.

The study area of the research unit is situated in the deeply incised valley of the Rio San Francisco between the province capitals Loja and Zamora in South Ecuador. Natural forest, mainly on the southern side of the valley contrasts with agriculturally utilised areas, mainly pasture land on the northern slopes. The research areas extend from about 1200 m to 3000 m a.s.l. and in addition to the altitudinal gradient also comprise a gradient of human impact, from small scale forest disturbance up to complete clearing of large areas for transformation into pasture land and home gardens. The comparative combination of both gradients, after scientific analysis, will allow proposals for sustainable use of the forest and the deforested area.

Tropical mountain rainforest © Wolfgang Wilcke
Tropical mountain rainforest in the study area
© Wolfgang Wilcke
Estación Científca San Francisco
Estación Científca San Francisco, picture taken from
opposite mountain. © Jürgen Homeier (1999)

The logistic centre of the research group is the field station "Estacion científica San Francisco" at an altitude of 1800 m on the left banks of the Rio San Francisco. It houses up to 30 researchers and provides good facilities for ecological field work. It belongs to the "Fundation Cientifica San Francisco" which is now "Nature and Culture International" (NCI) in San Diego, California.

Steps of Investigation

The rationale of the multidisciplinary research group intends four steps: Inventory of the abiotic and biotic compartments, functionality of compartments, modeling of the ecosystem and sustainable utilization. Many projects will be undertaken in close cooperation with Ecuadorian scientists. Inventory and functionality of the ecosystem is being addressed on different scales: Microhabitats, microclimate, soils, water and nutrient availability at selected locations; individual organisms and populations, structures of plant and animal communities (alpha- and beta-diversity) and their interactions; different landscapes, landscape (forest) structures, and macroclimate, water- and nutrient relations and balances.
Comparison of different situations and well planned experiments, such as small-scale clearing of selected areas will help to understand the various functions of the individual compartments of the ecosystem.
One of the major problems will be the scale-up from the microhabitats and individual organisms and populations to the level of landscapes, from micro-functions to functionality on the large scale levels. Remote sensing on the one hand and modeling of the relevant data on the other hand will be an indispensable tool to approach this aim.
Developing strategies for sustainable use of the natural forest, the agricultural areas and the abandoned land is the actual aim of the fourth step of the research unit's work. Since forest is the original vegetation of that zone, rehabilitation of the forest on the abandoned areas is one of the major aims. This requires knowledge of the indigenous tree species and of their biology for the establishment of tree-nurseries. Not much is known about the biology of useful plants from the natural forest and therefore much research is still necessary to learn the basic elements for their propagation and culture. Likewise, sustainable protection of unique parts of the forests requires knowledge of the ecosystem. A data base is being established where all kinds of data are collected and converted for a general use by the Research Unit.

Due to the innovative nature of the study the findings will have significance far beyond the investigated area in Southern Ecuador.

There are many differnt projects carried out by the scientists.

Recent Progress Reports of the various groups are summarized here.

Former scientific projects (external site)


Last update: 28 March 2006

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© Research Unit of the DFG: "Functionality in a Tropical Mountain Rainforest: Diversity, Dynamic Processes and Utilization Potentials under Ecosystem Perspectives"

Page created by Esther Schwarz-Weig

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