The Brazilian Atlantic Forest hosts one of the world's most diverse and threatened tropical forest biota. In many ways, its history of degradation describes the fate experienced by tropical forests around the world. After five centuries of human expansion, most Atlantic Forest landscapes are archipelagos of small forest fragments surrounded by open-habitat matrices. This 'natural laboratory' has contributed to a better understanding of the evolutionary history and ecology of tropical forests and to determining the extent to which this irreplaceable biota is susceptible to major human disturbances. We share some of the major findings with respect to the responses of tropical forests to human disturbances across multiple biological levels and spatial scales and discuss some of the conservation initiatives adopted in the past decade. First, we provide a short description of the Atlantic Forest biota and its historical degradation. Secondly, we offer conceptual models describing major shifts experienced by tree assemblages at local scales and discuss landscape ecological processes that can help to maintain this biota at larger scales. We also examine potential plant responses to climate change. Finally, we propose a research agenda to improve the conservation value of human-modified landscapes and safeguard the biological heritage of tropical forests.
Keywords: Atlantic Forest ecosystem services; biological homogenization and secondarization; climate change impacts; extinction; fragmentation history and thresholds; landscape context matters; restoration; time-lagged response to deforestation.
© 2014 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2014 New Phytologist Trust.