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A bimodal distribution of tropical tree cover at intermediate precipitation levels has been presented as evidence of fire-induced bistability. Here we subdivide satellite vegetation data into those from human-unaffected areas and those from regions close to human-cultivated zones. Bimodality is found to be almost absent in the unaffected regions, whereas it is significantly enhanced close to cultivated zones. Assuming higher logging rates closer to cultivated zones and spatial diffusion of fire, our spatiotemporal mathematical model reproduces these patterns. Given a gradient of climatic and edaphic factors, rather than
bistability there is a predictable spatial boundary, a Maxwell point, that separates regionswhere forest and savanna states are naturally selected. While bimodality can hence be explained by anthropogenic edge effects and natural spatial heterogeneity, a narrow range of bimodality remaining in the human-unaffected data indicates that there is still bistability, although on smaller scales than claimed previously.
Original languageEnglish
Article number15519
Number of pages11
JournalNature Communications
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2017


  • Applied mathematics
  • Complexity
  • Amazon basin
  • Remote sensing
  • Modelling and Simulation

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