Patch structure within Brazilian Atlantic Forest fragments and implications for conservation
Forest structure and tree species composition were studied in four Atlantic seasonal forest fragments ranging from 0.7 to 220 ha, isolated for more than a century in southeastern Brazil. Four physiognomic units were recognized within these fragments: (1) low forest, (2) bamboo forest, (3) high forest, and (4) mature forest. Tree density, basal area, and species diversity (Shannon-Wiener index) increased from low forest to bamboo forest to high forest to mature forest. Liana cover was highest in low forest. Gap-opportunistic species were the dominant ecological group in low forest, bamboo forest, and high forest, while shade tolerant canopy species formed the dominant group in mature forest. These structural and compositional features formed a gradient of forest development from the least developed low and bamboo forests to the most developed mature forest. Low forest is hypothesized to be in a stage of arrested succession and high forest a stage of degraded forest. A conceptual model is suggested to explain how these physiognomic units may be related to one another. Although these fragments were covered mainly by high and low forests and thus had a degraded structure, species diversity remained high in all of them. Fragments thus may undergo degradation long after isolation, even when they have been protected from human disturbance for a considerable period. Nonetheless, they also preserve important samples of local and regional floristic diversity for a long time after isolation.