Robert Lawton, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus, Biological Sciences


301 Sparkman Drive
Shelby Center
Room 302M
Huntsville, AL 35899
Campus Map


I am fascinated by the structure and dynamics of species-rich forests, particularly tropical cloud forests. Defined by, and dependent upon, immersion in cloud, cloud forests characteristically occur in tropical mountains where air is forced by the terrain to rise to the lifting condensation level -- the point of cloud formation. I am involved in collaborative projects, funded by NASA and NSF, which investigate the processes - both local and regional - influencing cloud formation and the interception of cloud water in the Cordillera de Tilarán of northern Costa Rica, home to the well-known Monteverde cloud forests. In the windswept Monteverde cloud forests, strong gradients in forest structure and species composition parallel a gradient of exposure to wind and cloud, which may be changing due to global and regional influences. I am part of a group establishing a research program to evaluate species distribution and performance along this changing gradient. Windthrow of trees is common in these forests, and concentrated during strong winter storms associated with outbreaks of North American polar air. Demographic analyses of a dominant tree species suggest, however, that these forests are in equilibrium with chronic disturbance by storms. Ongoing monitoring is aimed at addressing temporal variation in storm disturbance due to climatic oscillations such as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, and the relation of spatial variation in the pace of community dynamics to community composition. In addition to my cloud forest research interests, I work with students to study various problems in temperate forest plant ecology and population dynamics. I am also involved with the UAH Natural Products Research Group, and share with my wife, Dr. Marcy F. Lawton, a serious interest in corvids.


  • Ph.D., Ecology, University of Chicago, 1980
  • B.S., Botany, magna cum laude, Duke University, 1972


  • Ecology
  • Conservation

Recent Publications

  • "Quantitative measures of immersion in cloud and the biogeography of cloud forest." Mountains in the Mist: Science for conserving and managing tropical montane cloud forest. Lawton, R. O. , U. S. Nair, D. K. Ray, A. Regmi, A. Pounds, & R. M. Welch.

  • "Impact of deforestation on orographic cloud formation in a complex tropical environment." Mountains in the Mist: Science for conserving and managing tropical montane cloud forest. L. A. Bruijnzeel, J. Juvik, F. N. Scatena, L. S. Hamilton & P. Bubb (eds).

  • "Complex spatial structure in a population of Didymopanax pittieri, a tree of wind-exposed lower montane rain forest." Plant Ecology. 210: 125-135. Lawton, R. M. and R. O. Lawton (2010).

  • "Importance of land use versus atmospheric information verified from cloud simulation from a frontier region in Costa Rica." Geophysical Res. 114. doi: 10.1029/2007JD009565. Ray, D. K., R. A. Pielke, Sr., U. S. Nair, R. M. Welch and R. O. Lawton (2009).

  • "The impact of deforestation on regional surface temperatures and moisture in The Maya lowlands of Guatemala." Geophysical Research Letters. 36: L21701. doi: 10.1029/2009GL040818. Manoharan, V. S., R. M. Welch and R. O. Lawton (2009).

  • "Biogeography of tropical montane rain forests, 2: Mapping of orographic cloud immersion." J. App. Meterol. Climatol. 47: 2183-2197. Nair, U. S., S. Asefi, R. M. Welch, D. K. Ray, R. O. Lawton, V. S. Manoharan, M. Mulligan, T. L. Sever, D. Irwin & A. Pounds (2008).

  • "Impact of land use on Costa Rican tropical montane cloud forests: Sensitivity of orographic cloud formation to deforestation in the plains." J. Geophysical Research. 111: D02108. Ray, D. K., U. S. Nair, R. O. Lawton, R. M. Welch, and R. A. Pielke Sr. (2006).

  • "The medicinal value of tropical cloud forest plants from Monteverde, Costa Rica." J. Tropical Biology. 31(3-4): 647-674. Setzer, M. C., D. M. Moriarity, R. O. Lawton, W. N. Setzer, G. A. Gentry & W. A. Haber (2003).

  • "Impact of land use on Costa Rican tropical montane cloud forests: 1. Sensitivity of cumulus cloud fields to lowland deforestation." J. Geophysical Research - Atmospheres. Paper 10.1029/2001JD001135. Nair, U. S., R. O. Lawton, R. M. Welch, and R. A. Pielke (2003).

  • "Climatic impact of tropical lowland deforestation on nearby montane cloud forests." Science. 294: 584-587. Lawton, R..O., U. S. Nair, R. A. Pielke, Sr., R. M. Welch (2001).

Affiliate Faculty

Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology

Dr. Gregory Barsh

Research Faculty

Dr. Josh Clevenger

Research Faculty

Dr. Nick Cochran

HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology

Dr. Sara Cooper

Research Faculty

Dr. Gregory Cooper

Research Faculty

Dr. Jane Grimwood

Research Faculty

Dr. Jian Han

Research Faculty

Dr. Alex Harkess

Research Faculty

Dr. Neil Edward Lamb

Research Faculty

Dr. Elaine Lyon

Research Faculty

Dr. John Mayo

Professor Emeritus, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-New Orleans

Dr. Richard Myers

Research Faculty

Dr. Le Su

Junior Fellow HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology

Dr. Kankshita Swaminathan

Research Faculty