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Large herbivores increase biodiversity in tropical forests


Tapirs and peccaries are the largest herbivorous mammals that used to roam in most of South American rainforests. Increasing hunting and deforestation are threatening these mammals in most of their distribution, but the impact of this loss on such hyper-diverse forests is not well understood.

A team of researchers from São Paulo State University in Brazil (UNESP) found that the joint extinction of tapirs and peccaries caused a reduction in forest diversity. Based on a 10 year experiment the researchers found that communities of plants are more dissimilar only where both herbivores are simultaneously present, and that on forests where only one of the species occur, the diversity is lower. Their findings, reported in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Ecology, suggest a complementary ecological function of these species.

White lipped peccaries are voracious seed and seedling predators that live in large groups of extended families often in the excess of the hundred individuals, whose foraging and trampling strongly reduce the number of plants on the understory of tropical rainforests. Tapirs, in contrast, are solitary and feed on the leaves and fruits of a vast array of plant species but have no impact on the number of plants. However, tapirs consume large amounts of fruits that then they defecate elsewhere, moving seeds from one place of the forest to another where these might eventually turn into fully-grown trees. MORE

Header image: The white-lipped peccary, a large herbivore from the tropical forests of South America, lives in large groups and feeds on plant seeds and seedlings. Despite its feeding habits reduce the number of plants found at the forest floor, when found in combination with tapirs they have a net positive effect on plant diversity. Credit: João Paulo Krajewski.

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