Natural Regeneration

When we see deforestation, whether in the media or in person, it's easy to feel as though the forest has disappeared for good. It may seem as though urban areas and agricultural fields have permanently replaced the natural environment, but forests have had to deal with deforestation events since before humans were involved. Whether on a small scale, such as a single treefall, or a large scale, like a wildfire, forests can regrow on their own if they're allowed to.

We discovered the resilience of Panama's forests when we bought the first piece of land that became the Cerro Chucantí Private Nature Reserve. It broke our heart when we found out that some of the old-growth trees had been cut down before we were able to finalize the purchase. Some of these fallen trees were used to build our main field station in the reserve, right on the border of the cleared area, but you wouldn't know it if you saw it today! In less than 20 years, a beautiful primary forest has regrown in the area.

How does natural regeneration work?

Although logged areas may look ugly, they are very attractive to new plants! In healthy forests there is a lot of competition for resources like sun and nutrients, but deforestation eliminates competition from mature plants and, because of this, new growth begins very quickly after clearing has occurred.

Some plants begin to grow from intact roots or seeds left in the cleared area, while others use a variety of methods to disperse into the area. Small seeds may be carried by the wind or water, but most seeds in Panama depend on animals to carry them to now locations. As these young plants begin to grow, they in turn attract a wider variety of animals which disperse yet more seeds into the area.

In about a decade a young forest will have started to fill in the cleared area, but that is not the end of the natural regeneration process. Young forests are structured very differently than mature forests. Larger trees begin to shade out the sun-loving understory plants which first colonized the area, replacing them with the smaller shade-tolerant plants that are commonly found in older forests. As the vegetation community changes, the animal communities change as well: some will begin to permanently live in the regrowing area rather than merely moving through it. Eventually, after many years, it will be almost impossible to tell that the area was ever cleared at all.

Important Seed-dispersing Animals

Bats

Fruit-eating bats like the Seba's short-tailed bat, Carollia perspicillata (pictured), are usually the first animals to disperse seeds into cleared areas.

Rodents

Both ground- and tree-dwelling rodents, like agoutis, Dasyprocta spp. (pictured), love to hide seeds and fruits to eat later. Those which they forget can help to regrow new trees.

Birds

Young trees provide great places for seed-eating birds of all sizes, from variable seed eaters, Sporophila corvina (pictured), to toucans.

Primates

Monkeys like tamarins, Saguinus geoffroyi (pictured), move through areas of regrowth, dropping the seeds left over from their food from the canopy.

Bats

Fruit-eating bats like the Seba's short-tailed bat, Carollia perspicillata (pictured), are usually the first animals to disperse seeds into cleared areas.

Rodents

Both ground- and tree-dwelling rodents, like agoutis, Dasyprocta spp. (pictured), love to hide seeds and fruits to eat later. Those which they forget can help to regrow new trees.

Birds

• Los árboles jóvenes proporcionan buenos lugares para las aves que comen semillas de muchos tamaños, desde semilleros variables, Sporophila corvina (pictured), to toucans.

Primates

Monkeys like tamarins, Saguinus geoffroyi (pictured), move through areas of regrowth, dropping the seeds left over from their food from the canopy.

It's not always easy

The natural regeneration process is more equipped to deal with cases of natural deforestation (such as a fallen tree creating a clearing). The methods which humans use can suppress or slow down natural regeneration. In Panama, slash and burn practices kill seeds on the forest floor, remove nutrients from the soil, and open areas to the invasion of exotic species like wild cane, Saccharum spontaneum. Native plants then have to compete for vital resources like sun and water, which slows down their growth.

Although human activities can create big problems for natural regeneration, we can also work to solve these problems. For more information, click here to learn more About Deforestation or Our Approach.