rocks and water in forest
News Blog

Peter Ashton and Steven Hubbell Explore ForestGEO Organizational History, Future Directions

On October 20 Stuart Davies, ForestGEO’s director, moderated a conversation between Peter Ashton and Steve Hubbell, two figures who were influential in the founding of the Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS). In the special edition of ForestGEO’s virtual seminar series, Hubbell and Ashton discussed the program’s scientific beginnings and possible future directions.  

Steve and Peter were instrumental in establishing the first two plots of CTFS: the 50-ha Barro Colorado Island, Panama plot, and the 50-ha Pasoh, Malaysia plot. CTFS steadily added new tropical plots, and in the 2010s expanded its research scope to include programs on carbon, ecosystems, and arthropods, to name a few.  In 2013, CTFS became the Forest Global Earth Observatory, ForestGEO. 

Image caption below.
Screenshot of Stuart Davies, Peter Ashton, and Steve Hubbell. 

Throughout the seminar Stuart, Peter, and Steve covered a range of topics, including the early days of their research careers, the factors at play in choosing their methods, and the roles of niche and neutral theories.  They also touched upon the challenge of funding long-term, basic science, and highlighted the importance of local partnerships. 

To celebrate the conversation and the myriad topics it explored, we share below a selection of quotes from Steve and Peter.

Steve Hubbell on expanding vs. intensifying the ForestGEO network: “One of the motivations I can see for expanding the study of biodiversity to really large scales is that we can’t conserve it unless we know it, and we don’t know it at this point.” 

Peter Ashton on early collaboration with local partners: “I arrived in a little Brunei town to be provided with a small room over a cinema with a cupboard with several unknown specimens, undetermined specimens, and no library, but what I did have was three freshly appointed young Iban Dayak tree climbers, and once I began to learn their language I became totally amazed not only with their extraordinary knowledge, but of their concept of what species are – quite different, in several ways different, from what I’d be taught, and also the extraordinary diversity of characters by which they identified the species, often species new to science.”

Steve Hubbell on the decision to census at 1 cm dbh: “It was a compromise between mapping everything from a seedling just germinated to the canopy trees, which was logistically and financially impossible, and, yet, we knew that the dynamics of the small plants was really important to the processes that regulate diversity, and so we said, we’ve gotta go smaller than the typical tropical plot, which at that time was 10 cm.” 

Peter Ashton on advice to the next generation of forest scientists: “We need generalists.  Everybody in science now-a-days is dancing on the head of a pin and does not understand the language of the scientist next door.  We need people who not only understand the dynamics of the forest, who know the species, but have some knowledge of the geology, and the soils, and the climate […], and then, of course, can focus on particular areas of specialization, but they must start off with the broad view.”

To watch the discussion in its entirety, email Caly McCarthy ( to receive a recording of the seminar.

ForestGEO offers its Seminar Series on the third Wednesday of every month, from 9-10 AM, ET.  Visit this page to learn more about our Seminar Series.