Field Sites

We work in many fantastic places around the globe – but much of work in the lab has focused on three primary field locations including (i) long-term dynamics of growth and change within a tropical forest in the Area de Conservacion, Guanacaste, Costa Rica; (ii) elevation transect at the Rocky Mountain Biological lab in Colorado; and (iii) a global network of ‘Gentry’ forest plots across latitudinal and elevational gradients; and (iv) our international Plant Functional Trait Courses


(1) San Emilio Forest Dynamics Plant (SEFDP) – Long-term Dynamics and Structure of a Tropical Forest

We organize a long-term forest dynamic plot in Guanacaste Costa Rica. It is the largest, longest running forest dynamics plot in the New World. We are monitoring the dynamics of a ~16ha permanent plot located in the lowland tropical-dry-forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. As of 2021 the plot is a part of the ForestGEO global forest network. The research site is located within the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste , specifically Santa Rosa National Park. This plot was originally surveyed in 1976, almost 40 years ago by S.P. Hubbell and G.C.Stevens.

Conducting the 2019/20 resurvey of the SEFDP plot. 40+ years of long-term change in a tropical forest.

The SEFDP was originally censused in 1976 by George Stevens and Stephen Hubbell, where all woody stems with a diameter  ≥ 3 cm at 1.3 m off the ground (including lianas) had their diameter measured and their spatial location in the plot recorded. The area of the plot was 14.4-ha. The original SEFDP data was digitized from the original computer cards by Brian Enquist in 1995, and data quality control on the original survey was conducted by Stevens and Enquist. The plot was recensused in 1995-1996 by Enquist using the same methodology as the first census. A third census of the SEFDP was led by Nate Swenson between 2006 and 2007 using the same methodology. A fourth census, led by University of Arizona PhD student Adam Chmurzynski, occurred in 2019-2021 where all woody stems including lianas ≥1cm were mapped within 15.64 hectares of the San Emilio forest. This survey complied with ForestGEO protocols. 

The plot contains approximately 50,000 individual trees consisting of ~200 woody species within the plot. Research in the ‘San Emilio’ forest focuses on tree population dynamics, the influence of soil and soil moisture and local and regional climatic changes on local dynamics. We have used trait-based, ecophysiological, and macro ecological approaches to more closely match physiological attributes with local and regional distribution.

Lidar coverage of the SEFDP . The grid is the mapped area of the forest. Imagery from Eben N. Broadbent, University of Florida and Arturo Sanchez, University of Alberta

For a copy of a vegetative key to the trees and woody shrubs of Upland Deciduous Forest of the ACG click here . This work, in collaboration with Jon Sullivan, is also published online via the ACG. The URL is available on the Flowering Plants Species Webpages URL listed below.

Visit the Flowering Plant Species Homepages for Guanacaste Costa Rica by clicking here En Espanol

Help grow the Guanacaste Conservation Area – purchase threatened rainforest here .


(2) Assessing community functional composition and ecosystem flux across elevational gradients – Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, Gothic Colorado.

Scaling the functional attributes of plants, communities, and ecosystems across elevational gradients: Responses to climate change – Rocky Mountain Biological Lab

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Since 2003 we have been monitoring ecosystem carbon fluxes, species composition and turnover, and phylogenetic and functional trait composition of montane to alpine plant communities across an elevational gradient. An important question in ecology is to understand how attributes of species influence the functioning of ecosystems. This study is designed to forge links between variation in the physical environment (e.g., changes in temperature and precipitation with elevation), changes in the functional attributes of plant species (plant size, leaf morphology and physiology etc.) and the functioning of whole ecosystems (the fluxes of carbon and water).

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Synthesizing this knowledge is critical for predicting responses of the biosphere to climate change. The mountainous landscape in and around RMBL provides enormous range of physical conditions, from warm wet meadows to cold dry ridge tops. The resulting plant communities are likewise both functionally and phylogenetically diverse. We propose to assess how plant functional diversity and whole ecosystem fluxes vary across a range of elevations and environments. Our work at RMBL will be part of a larger global project. We are in the process of starting similar elevational studies of plant functional diversity and ecosystem fluxes across elevational gradients in SE Arizona and Costa Rica. Data from these field studies will form the basis for the development and testing of mechanistic, predictive models linking the functional attributes of organisms to large scale processes in plant communities and ecosystems.


(3) Plant Functional Trait Courses (PFTC)

Our international Plant Functional Traits Courses (PFTC) offer hands-on training in different applications of plant functional traits ecology within a real-life field research project setting. During each course, students will collect and explore plant functional trait data in the field and use trait-based approaches within climate change research and ecosystem ecology. You can read more about PFTC here.

2020 PFTC Students in Peru near the top of the elevational gradient

Trait-based ecology incorporates important methods and approaches that enable a powerful approach to predict how climate and biotic interactions shape plant community dynamics and ecosystem functioning. Each course will provide students with essential background knowledge and the practical field, lab, and computational skills needed for conducting their own research within trait-based ecology.

2020 PFTC 5 Students in Peru

We work in multiple locations combining field work along elevational and climate gradients in China, Norway, Colorado USA, Peru and several additional countries in the near future including Chile and South Africa.

(4) Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group/CHAMBASA – Elevational Gradient

Global change, biodiversity, and ecosystem function in the Eastern Andes. Using the Andes-Amazon gradient as a laboratory for understanding global change.

The eastern slope of the Andes harbors Earth’s highest biodiversity and is also the area most threatened by climate change. The Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group (ABERG) is a team of researchers from universities around the world dedicated to understanding biodiversity distribution and ecosystem function in the Peruvian Andes. Since 2003, the ABERG group has been focused on a 3.5-kilometer elevational gradient spanning from the Andean highlands to the Amazonian lowlands as a natural laboratory for understanding biodiversity and ecosystem function in time and space and to refine predictions for how tropical forests will respond to climate and anthropogenic change. Since 2018 we have been working on extending this elevational gradient with the PFTC group above the forest and into the Puna ecosystem. Combining modern and paleoecology, climate science, distributional ecology, and cutting-edge remote sensing techniques, the ABERG group is gaining a comprehensive understanding of forest and ecosystem ecology across environmental gradients.

(5) The Forest MacroSystems Network

A global view of forest diversity, demographics, and dynamics. A global network of ‘Gentry’ forest plots across elevational and latitudinal gradients. The Forest MacroSystems (FMS) network consists of nine forest monitoring sites arrayed across a broad latitudinal climate gradient. Since 2011 we have been monitoring the annual dynamics of tree growth and mortality. Locations include spectacular forest locations in BCI Panama, Luquillo Puerto Rico, Guanacaste Costa Rica, Cowetta North Carolina, Harvard Forest Massachusetts, Niwot Ridge Colorado, Mt. Lemmon Arizona, HJ Andrews Oregon, British Columbia Canada.

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