Sacred natural sites as mensurative fragmentation experiments in long-inhabited multifunctional landscapes

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Travis Reynolds and Colby graduate Janice Liang (ES-Policy ’16) have published an article in the journal Ecography illustrating how sacred natural sites can inform ecological theories on habitat fragmentation in developing countries. The research, conducted in collaboration with Assistant Professor of Biology Cathy Collins and other US and Ethiopian partners, combines remote sensing data on forest cover in northern Ethiopia with on-site field surveys of tree species diversity in Ethiopian Orthodox church forests, as well as household interviews providing further insights into how church forest management impacts tree species diversity and forest cover alike. The authors illustrate how the thousands of sacred natural sites in Ethiopia can allow researchers to test ecological hypotheses about forest fragmentation in a long-deforested landscape where rigorous fragmentation studies are otherwise impossible. But they also emphasize how understanding patterns in the tree species composition of church forests requires consideration of the complex interplay between ecological gradients and anthropogenic influences over time.

This research was conducted with financial support from the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site program, which funds the Colby College REU Site Undergraduate Research into the Cultural, Economic and Ecological Significance of Church Forests in South Gondar, Ethiopia (, which Reynolds co-leads with Dr. Denise Bruesewitz (Environmental Studies) and Dr. Meg Lowman of the California Academy of Sciences.