The role of natural disturbances at multiple scales has been important for fern and lycophyte regeneration processes and in maintenance of fern and lycophyte diversity (Arens and Baracaldo, 1998; Page, 2002). Ferns can also dominate degraded sites and impose barriers for tree regeneration by competing for soil moisture, nutrients, and light (George and Bazzaz, 1999; Ashton et al., 2001; Slocum et al., 2004). Slocum et al. (2004) found that clearing fern thickets caused rapid recruitment of woody species and then limited regeneration of fern thickets. On the other hand, in the Andean cloud forests of Colombia, tree ferns (Lophosoria, Cyathea caracasana, and Dicksonia) are important colonizers of open areas and their use in forest restoration is suggested (Arens and Baracaldo, 1998). These disturbance and successional processes should be considered when planning and managing conservation reserves.
The removal of invasive species and weed control may be of high priority for certain fern and lycophyte species, especially on remote islands where endemics have evolved in the absence of competition and predation. Isoetes setacea is considered a keystone species for priority habitat in the European Union, and experimental shrub clearing and increased light levels led to an increase in the number of I. setacea individuals (Rhazi et al., 2004). Management and restoration of habitat assessed for the endangered fern Marsilea villosa in Hawaii on the island of Oahu initially concluded that weed removal was unnecessary due to this fern's ability to reestablish itself during periodic flooding regardless of weeding efforts, with major threats of extinction from damage by off-road vehicles and a long succession of unusually dry years (Wester, 1994). However, the population health of Marsilea villosa as later assessed on Oahu has shown a dramatic decline over 8 years. Other causes of the population decline include a decrease in dominant trees and the invasion of alien grasses, which in turn may reduce the frequency and intensity of flooding (Wester et al., 2006) and increase the risk of fire. These observations demonstrate the cumulative feedback cycle of habitat degradation, where human impacts may be exacerbated by climatic events such as extended periods of drought, and aggravated by biologically adapted invasive species able to seize the upper hand in these windows of opportunity. Limiting the number of introductions of those non-native species with a high potential of becoming invasive in island ecosystems is a conservation priority (Gagne, 1988). As of 2007, Hawaii has failed to achieve political support for implementing stricter regulations for agricultural and biological imports.
In the lowlands of Jambi, Sumatra, ferns normally found in primary forest were also found in agroforest patches, but were lacking in plantation lands where undergrowth was removed or suppressed with herbicides (Beukema and van Noordwijk, 2004). The agroforest patches contained multiple secondary crops, including vegetables, rice, and fruit trees, and eventually secondary forest vegetation regenerated naturally after several years (Beukema and van Noord-wijk, 2004). Therefore preserving rainforest biodiversity in commercial forestry may be possible with less intensive production, increased crop diversity, and minimized harvesting impacts to surrounding vegetation. Indeed, Lindenmayer et al. (2000) suggest that logging effects should resemble natural disturbance regimes and promote structural complexity in maintaining fern and lycophyte communities. Finding new ways to incorporate sustainable practices in agricultural and commercial harvesting is highly relevant to the future of the world's forests, especially in tropical regions.
10.10 Future directions in fern and lycophyte conservation
Most ferns and lycophytes are dependent on wet tropical montane habitats and are threatened with extinction before scientists have described them all (Page, 1985). The request for more taxonomic, distributional, and abundance documentation of ferns and lycophytes is sustained here, especially for under-explored regions and species of concern. Conservation of ferns and lycophytes in situ is possibly the most important issue today with increasing rates of human resource consumption and subsequent deforestation: "... it is an inescapable fact that survival for most species is inextricably dependent on conservation of forests worldwide," (Page, 1985, p. 441). Conservation of ferns in the tropics is additionally of high priority due to the concentration of fern and lycophyte diversity in countries with limited funding for research, limited protection for threatened areas, and limited means to enforce existing protections (Burrows and Golding, 2002; Hamilton, 2002).
Public awareness is crucial in conservation efforts (Given, 2002), especially in developed nations where consumer demand is often driving exploitative resource extraction. Demand for rare forest products, including endangered species, often drives global luxury markets into a positive feedback loop, where rarity becomes more valuable and thus reinforces suppliers to seek out the last remaining populations. The collection industry is causing a decline in certain fern and lycophyte taxa, notably tree ferns and other species valuable for the landscaping and florist industries. Consumer product awareness and seller accountability are crucial in today's market economy.
Adopting an ecosystem approach to species conservation, while also considering regional approaches to in situ and ex situ methods of protection and restoration, are considered the way forward in fern and lycophyte conservation biology (Jermy and Ranker, 2002). In addition to continuing to conduct ecological, demographic, taxonomic, and genetic studies of ferns and lycophytes, we encourage biologists, land managers, and conservationists to expand our knowledge of the functional and structural roles performed by ferns and lycophytes in the Earth's biomes.
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