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From Darwin to Smith - by UCLA & Center for Tropical Research

From Darwin to Smith → Understanding the Drivers of Evolution and
Their Applications in the Congo Basin Rainforest
By Ashley Bardon

You may have guessed that the United States and China are the world’s top contributors in greenhouse gas emissions, but did you know scientists have predicted Africa will suffer the bulk of the consequences? Because of its unique geographical position, Africa is predicted to be the continent hardest hit by the effects of climate change in the coming decades, leading to devastating impacts on their vital natural resources. In order to keep up with the looming environmental threat and Africa’s rapid population growth, ecologists and environmentalists are working hard to protect biodiversity and implement solutions to diminish the impacts on the environment.

“We’ve never been in a situation more difficult than we are right now with climate change with respect to the threats to biodiversity." -Dr. Thomas Smith

UCLA’s Dr. Thomas Smith founded the Center for Tropical Research in 1997 to better understand and address these environmental challenges, particularly within Cameroon’s Congo Basin Rainforest, the world’s second largest rainforest. Smith and his colleagues work to bridge the siloes that exist between the research community and the government. He found that much of the ecology and biodiversity research being conducted was not reaching the decision makers. Thus, the Center was established to bridge that gap and bring the best possible research to the region in order to make informed decisions to influence rainforest preservation. Smith and his colleagues at the Center for Tropical Research are at the frontlines of the world’s conservation efforts, conducting cutting-edge research and deploying novel approaches to preserving biodiversity and conserving plant and animal species within the most vulnerable regions on earth. 

For many years, environmental scientists have been intensely focused on conservation in ‘biodiversity hotspots’, geographical regions that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Biodiversity hotspots are easily identifiable classifications, such as rainforest or tropical savannah. But what about the regions that don’t fall within those classifications, and more importantly, who is protecting the species that don’t inhabit the biodiversity hotspots? When it comes to these gradient ecosystems, or ecotones as they’re called, conservation and protection efforts have essentially been neglected.

“[Cameroon] has some of the greatest biodiversity in Africa, and that includes some of the rarest animals on the planet. There’s just tremendous discoveries to be made.” –Dr. Thomas Smith

In the 1990s, Smith began conducting research on a small bird in the Congo Basin Rainforest called the little greenbul, a relatively plain and uninteresting bird among its rainforest dwelling counterparts. He and his colleagues examined the greenbul in varying habitats, *ecotones among them. What they discovered was groundbreaking for evolutionary and environmental science. Smith found that the little greenbuls living in ecotones were actually in the beginning stages of speciation, stage in which a species begins to evolve into another species entirely. Smith’s research was crucial for conservation efforts because the little greenbul’s evolution was essentially caused by the strong selection pressures found in the ecotones. With a significantly changing environment, the birds are adapting rather swiftly to maintain their resiliency. Speciation within ecotones is not an anomaly; in fact, Smith and other biologists are finding evidence of this in many species. These findings are vastly important to conservation efforts, as our prioritization of funding and efforts to sustain biodiversity need to be refocused from primarily biodiversity hotspots to also include the overlooked gradient areas and ecotones.

* Ecotone, a transitional area of vegetation between two different plant communities, such as forest and grassland. It has some of the characteristics of each borderingbiological community and often contains species not found in the overlapping communities.

Preservation of biodiversity is crucial for maintaining both human health and planetary health. All of the world’s ecosystems, species, and relationships depend on one another to maintain our symbiosis and our ability to thrive. Humans depend on plants to produce oxygen, plants depend on humans to produce carbon dioxide, humans depend on birds and flying insects to pollinate plants and agriculture, birds depend on trees for habitat, humans depend on plants to produce necessary pharmaceuticals, and so the symbiotic relationships go on and on. Every species on the planet has a role to play in maintaining the mass ecosystem. Humans’ role, however, is unique now in that we have the power, knowledge, and choice to either destroy or preserve other species. The Center for Tropical Research at UCLA and many other institutions around the world are working hard to ensure humans choose the latter – to preserve as many species as possible.

“It’s important to remember that human health and biodiversity are intricately connected, and preserving biodiversity is really critical for human health.” –Dr. Thomas Smith

In addition to the research being conducted on ecotones and speciation, the Center for Tropical Research develops innovative approaches to bridge the gap between environmental research and decision-making processes. The Center works with the government in Cameroon to disseminate research findings and work collaboratively to develop and implement solutions. Most recently the Center has developed a plan to build an academic institution in Cameroon called the Congo Basin Institute (CBI), where UCLA researchers will collaborate with academic partners to initiate cutting edge research and scale up existing programs within the Congo Basin. The CBI will be dedicated to developing solutions to issues such as climate change, human disease, food and water security, and biodiversity loss. Smith’s and the Center’s long-term commitment to conservation and planetary health is essential to the future of our planet and to humans’ survival. Without dedicated research scientists like those at the Center for Tropical Research, our planet and the human race could be facing a grim future.

To learn more about the research and conservation efforts conducted by the Center for Tropical Research, visit their website

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