School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences

Natural History Museum

Spatial analysis of tropical forest composition, productivity and micro-environmental variation in Belize

The University of Edinburgh

Background and Aims

The Department of Geography is currently involved in a multi-disciplinary pilot project, examining very small scale changes in forest properties.

Soil samples were taken using a percussion corerTwo Belizean researchers taking a soil core in the forest plot. The Department is providing expertise in tropical soils. Working in moist tropical forest, researchers are examining the soils which overly the limestone bedrock. To date over 600 soil samples have been taken from two pairs of plots, using a combination of coring and soil pit excavation techniques.

Measurements gathered from this work have been used to provide maps of soil depth across the study plots. Soil samples sent back to the Department's Laboratories are currently undergoing detailed physical and chemical analysis.

Understanding differences in the type and depth of soil should help explain the distribution and health of the standing vegetation.
The fieldwork for the project was carried out in two phases between June 1996 and August 1997, based at the Las Cuevas Research Station, Belize. In August 1997, the team was joined by Dr Doug Lewis of the Scottish Agricultural College who is examining moisture levels in the forest soils.

The Las Cuevas Field Station is a joint venture between the National History Museum and the Belize Forest Department.
The Las Cuevas Field Station
The view from the balcony outside the laboratory
One of the Forest Department permanent study plots
The logging experiment is scheduled to last for forty years.
This soils analysis is one component of a wider project - The spatial analysis of tropical forest composition, productivity and micro-environmental variation.

This integrates the findings of scientists from a wide range of disciplines.:
Researchers from the Manomet Observatory in Boston are comparing the movement of birds and the growth rates of saplings in disturbed and undisturbed areas.
Forest Department staff trained by The Natural Resources Institute, (UK) have identified and labelled every mature tree in the plot. They are now monitoring the composition and age structure of different areas of the forest.
Botanists from the Natural History Museum have carried out ecological surveys of the forest and are combing this information with elevation figures from topographic survey to produce a Geographical Information System for this area.
Museum entomologists are studying the insect fauna of Las Cuevas.

The project uses permanent sampling plots established by the Belizean Forest Department to examine the impact of selective logging activities.


Output from this project will include:

An assessment of the importance of key soil physical, biological and chemical properties on tree performance and species distribution at micro, meso and macro scales.
Testing the abilities of remote sensing, GIS and geostatistical modelling techniques to describe and examine spatial variation in moist tropical forest tree species.
Setting up a GIS framework which allows hierarchical nesting of data from plot, to community, to regional scales.

A terrain model of a forest plot The image to the right shows a 3D digital elevation model of one of the study sites - the Las Cuevas Logged Plot.

The colour of the land surface represents the elevation of the site. This was obtained from detailed topographic survey.

The white poles mark out the corners of a 100 metre by 100 metre plot. This is sub-divided to produce a range of sampling schemes.

The red poles mark out a series of 20 metre by 20 metre squares, which are split into four sample plots. The cyan rectangle marks an area of intensive sampling - soil samples were taken here every metre.

Finally, located outside the plot to minimise disturbance are five soil pits. These are used for detailed soil investigation, in some cases sampling every 10 centimetres.


Prof Peter Furley
Dr Malcolm Murray

The University of Edinburgh
Drummond Street
Edinburgh EH8 9XP
Scotland UK


Mr Malcolm Penn
Mr Alex Monro

Department of Botany
The Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 5BD
England, UK


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