Long-term fire and vegetation change in northwestern Amazonia
Amazonian forest plots are used to quantify biodiversity and carbon sequestration, and provide the foundation for much of what is known about tropical ecology. Many plots are assumed to be undisturbed, but recent work suggests that past fire, forest openings, and cultivation created vegetation changes that have persisted for decades to centuries (ecological legacies). The Yasuní Forest Dynamics plot is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, yet its human history remains unknown. Here, we use charcoal and phytolith analysis to investigate the fire and vegetation history of the Yasuní forest plot, and compare results with nearby forest plots in Colombia (Amacayacu) and Peru (Medio Putumayo-Algodón [MPA]) to explore the spatial variability of past disturbances and ecological legacies in northwestern Amazonia. Three 14C dated charcoal fragments provided evidence for a modern (1956 CE) and a past fire event ca. 750 years ago at Yasuní, compared with fire ages of 1000–1600 years ago documented at Amacayacu and MPA. Small-scale disturbances and localized canopy openings also occurred in the Yasuní plot. Phytolith assemblages from Yasuní and Amacayacu showed more variability in past vegetation change than MPA. Low-intensity, non-continuous disturbances occurred at all three plots in the past, and our results highlight the variability of past human activities both in space and time in northwestern Amazonia. Our data also suggest that post-Columbian human disturbances from the Rubber Boom (AD 1850–1920) and subsequent oil exploration have likely left stronger ecological legacies than those left by pre-Columbian peoples in our studied regions.