Ecological legacies of past fire and human activity in a Panamanian forest

Societal Impact Statement -- Tropical forests provide global ecosystem services and harbor much of Earth's terrestrial biodiversity, but the mechanisms driving the patterns of biodiversity remain uncertain. Palms are one of the most abundant and most widely used plant groups, particularly in the Neotropics. Our data highlight how both direct and indirect human influence that occurred decades to hundreds of years ago can affect the abundances of palm species in modern tropical forests. Our results highlight that biodiversity is dynamic, and changes through time, and that human activities can affect species composition for centuries in tropical forests.


  • Human activities over the past decades and centuries, including fire, cultivation, and forest opening, may have left ecological legacies that persist in modern tropical forests, particularly among palms. We investigated whether past human activities affected modern palm abundances in a well-studied plot located in a tropical semievergreen forest of Panama.
  • We analyzed soil cores for charcoal to reconstruct past fire events and phytoliths to reconstruct past vegetation changes. We dated as many charcoal fragments as possible to place a temporal framework on past fire events.
  • Our analysis documented widespread fires that occurred 600–900 years ago across the plot. Oenocarpus mapora increased in abundance as a result of these fires, though other palms did not. A subsequent increase in O. mapora occurred later in the relative absence of fire and was likely due to game hunting during the construction of the Panama Canal.
  • Our results showed that the enrichment of O. mapora was determined by disturbance characteristics (e.g., timing, type, and intensity), but the persistence of increased abundances was likely determined by traits (life history characteristics). These data highlight the complexity of human–environment interactions and how they can persist for centuries in settings with long-lived trees such as tropical forests. These data highlight the importance of adding a historical context to further understand modern ecological patterns and processes.
Crystal N. H. McMichael, Veerle Vink, Britte M. Heijink, Nina H. Witteveen, Dolores R. Piperno, William D. Gosling, Mark B. Bush
Plants, People, Planet