Securing African forests for future drier climates: applying ecophysiology in tree improvement
Increasing incidences of drought-induced tree mortality are being recorded worldwide, including Africa. African forests cover a significant proportion of the continent, which implies that African forest sustainability is threatened from a climate-change perspective. This is especially problematic in a developing nation context, because forest ecosystems such as plantation forestry provide important goods and services that sustain human well-being and economic growth. Disentangling the likely triggers of tree mortality (including those linked to drought) in landscapes would not only explain the mechanisms underlying local die-offs, but also better predict future mortality events. Methods applied in the field of ecophysiology are particularly useful to study in situ plant responses to an environment. We consider the status quo of global peer-reviewed publication outputs during the past century that have made use of key ecophysiological research approaches, specifically studies concerning ‘tree xylem anatomy’, ‘tree xylem cavitation’, ‘tree leaf gas-exchange’ and ‘tree xylem hydraulic conductivity’. We highlight the growth and applicability of this research field in understanding tree ecology. We also assess the role that the forestry sector has had in promoting such research to ensure future-proof forest products. Most importantly, we consider how Africa with its vast forested landscapes fits within this research spectrum. The last decade saw an increase of up to 60% in the total number of articles published, particularly with a focus on tree xylem cavitation and conductivity. Although forest research contributed greatly to the global tally of ecophysiological studies, and such studies in Africa have also increased by up to 88% in the past decade, there remains a general lack of this research topic in the continent. It is clear an optimisation of applied ecophysiological concepts and techniques will promote an improved understanding of tree mortality patterns. We argue that ecophysiological data will be crucial to future-proof tree improvement strategies in African commodity production landscapes, especially given future drier climates.
Keywords: developing nations, drought tolerance, forest resilience, forest sustainability, plantation forestry, tree hydric strategy, wood anatomical ecology