UCLA professor honored for expanding our understanding of tropical forests

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Stephen Hubbell is first American in four decades to win international organization's scientific achievement award

Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

UCLA professor Stephen Hubbell

Stephen Hubbell, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, will be presented a Scientific Achievement Award during the opening ceremony of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations World Congress on Oct. 6. No American has won the award in more than 40 years.

In announcing the award, IUFRO praised Hubbell as a “visionary scientist who has made unparalleled contributions to understanding the biological diversity and ecology of tropical forests.” He is an international leader in advancing our scientific understanding of complex tropical systems, which is essential for their conservation and management.

“We need much better data on the distribution of life on Earth,” he said in a 2011 interview. “We need to rapidly increase our understanding of where species are on the planet. We need citizens to record their local biodiversity; there are not enough scientists to gather the information. We also need much deeper thought about how we can estimate the extinction rate properly to improve the science behind conservation planning. If you don't know what you have, it is hard to conserve it.”

Organized in 1897 and headquartered in Vienna, Austria, IUFRO is the global network of research organizations conducting research in forests around the world. The October meeting, which will be held in Salt Lake City, is expected to draw 3,000 delegates from 100 countries, which would make it the largest meeting of professional foresters and forest researchers ever in the U.S.

In addition to Hubbell, two other prominent scientists are being honored with Scientific Achievement Awards: Yale University’s Chadwick Dearing Oliver and Virginia Tech’s Harold Burkhart.

Hubbell is the co-founder of the Center for Tropical Forest Science, which manages a global net­work of large permanent tropical forest research plots and monitors natural populations of more than 6,000 tropical tree species. He also is the founding chairman and a board member of the National Council for Science and the Environment, which addresses biodiversity conservation and the extinction crisis and whose mission is to improve the scientific basis of environmental decision-making.

“I deeply appreciate being nominated for and receiving the IUFRO Scientific Achievement Award,” Hubbell said. “It is a real pleasure to receive this unexpected honor.”

Hubbell, a faculty member in the UCLA College, is renowned for his research on tropical rainforests and theoretical ecology. He has published four books — including “Neutral Theory of biodiversity and Biogeography,” which has been cited more than 4,100 times — and more than 200 scientific papers on tropical plant ecology, theoretical ecology, plant-animal interactions and animal behavior. His unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography explains the diversity and relative abundance of species in ecological communities.

He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Association for the Advance­ment of Science, and he received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1983. He joined the UCLA faculty in 2007.

In a 2011 article in the journal Nature, Hubbell asserted that the most widely used method for estimating immediate extinction from habitat loss is fundamentally flawed and that it overestimates extinction rates, sometimes by as much as 160 percent.

“The methods currently in use to estimate extinction rates are erroneous, but we are losing habitat faster than at any time over the last 65 million years,” Hubbell said at the time. “We have bought a little more time with this discovery, but not a lot.”

Hubbell has said that humans are already using 40 percent of all the plant biomass produced by photosynthesis on the planet, a statistic that’s disturbing because most life on Earth depends on plants. Some three-quarters of all species thought to reside on Earth live in rain forests, which are being cut down at the rate of about half a percent per year, he said.

Hubbell has long encouraged the public to spend more time enjoying nature. “If we don’t take steps to preserve animals and plants that we care about, they are going to be gone.

“When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time doing non-macho things like collecting butterflies and turning over rocks,” he said. “The only way we’re going to save nature is by making sure future generations experience nature. People who have never seen wild nature don’t miss it and don’t realize how impoverished their lives have become due to its loss. I worry about the loss of a conservation ethic among the public. Go to the tropics. Experience a rain forest — while you still can.”

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