Tropical ecosystems are the biologically richest places on the planet, yet what we know about them comes from scientific studies so specialized that the results rarely make the local news. “Most ecological studies last fewer than five years at a single study site, with measurements focused on an area of only ten meters squared,” explains Sandy Andelman, Vice President of Conservation International for the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network. “Ecology needs to scale up to address global climate change and other environmental threats.”
Scaling up to global proportions is precisely what TEAM was created to do. This ambitious program is devoted to monitoring long-term trends in biodiversity, land cover change, climate and ecosystem services in tropical forests. Tropical forests received first billing because of their overwhelming significance to the global biosphere (e.g., their disproportionately large role in global carbon and energy cycles) and because of the extraordinary threats they face. About 50 percent of the species described on Earth, and an even larger proportion of species not yet described, occur in tropical forests.
The idea behind TEAM is deceptively simple: to measure and compare plants, terrestrial mammals, ground-dwelling birds and climate using a standard methodology in a range of tropical forests, from relatively pristine places to those most affected by people. TEAM currently operates in sixteen tropical forest sites across Africa, Asia and Latin America supporting a network of scientists committed to standardized methods of data collection to quantify how plants and animals respond to pressures such as climate change and human encroachment.
How TEAM Works
Everyone knows that deforestation is a global crisis, but simply increasing the area of forests protected by reserves won't necessarily solve the problem, particularly given what we now know about climate change. Climate change forces adjustments to wildlife ranges. It alters the transmission rates of disease. It might affect the timing or length of the seasons or the annual distribution of rainfall. Scientists have little quantitative data about how animals and plants are responding to these environmental perturbations, especially in the tropics. The TEAM Network is collecting data to help us understand the impact of climate change on ecosystem health.
By using a standard methodology at a global scale and by sharing our data publicly, the TEAM Network is creating a new culture of ecology. The traditional portrayal of ecological study, in which a scientist at one site builds a career on the data from that site, has less relevance in today's world, where the environmental threats caused by people happen at large spatial and temporal scales—magnitudes too large for a single scientist at one site to observe. In another major departure from standard practice among ecologists, TEAM makes all of the Network data publicly available as it is collected, in near real time. Accessible, near real time data makes TEAM an early warning system for nature.