The Foundations of our Forests

Louise studying a sample of soil

Louise Egerton-Warburton, Ph.D.

Conservation Scientist, Soil and Microbial Ecology, Chicago Botanic Garden

Characterized by warm temperatures, high rainfall and a 365-day growing season, tropical rainforests are an unparalleled display of biodiversity. These impressive and unique ecosystems provide resources we need – from shelter to medicines to food – while releasing oxygen, cycling and filtering water, and sequestering one substance we’re keen to reduce: carbon.

Louise studying a sample of soil. (C) Chicago Botanic Garden

Tropical rainforests play a key role in the global carbon cycle. Forests are nature’s carbon sequestration solution – trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to fuel photosynthesis and generate resources – like oxygen, wood, fruit and habitat – that we and other species depend on for survival. Today, these forests are the frontlines of climate change and, unlike vertebrate and invertebrate species, forests are unable to adapt by quickly moving to new locations.

We already know that deforestation has intense effects on a forest’s ability to continue providing vital services – including carbon cycling. Clearing forested land releases all that sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, species lose their habitats, and the soil is left exposed, promoting drying and erosion. But what about disruptions that aren’t as obvious to the naked eye – like changes in the climate?

My research focuses on an often overlooked, but crucial, part of the ecosystem – the soil. 2015 is the UN Year of Soils, and my work seeks to understand just what goes on far beneath the canopy. Tropical soil is not unlike the forests it fosters – bursting with life, full of a great diversity of organisms and micro-organisms, each serving a particular purpose and filling a niche in the system. I am particularly interested in the fungal species that live in symbiotic relationships with tree species – they provide a —> Read More