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Why losing big animals causes big problems in tropical forests

14 / 06 / 2017, Mongabaycom News

There’s no doubt that animals play critical roles in maintaining healthy forests. In these species-rich ecosystems, birds and mammals – especially large ones – ingest seeds from all kinds of plants and, ahem, distribute them around the forest. If those seeds take root and grow, it closes the circle and the forest’s diverse mix of plant life remains intact. However, as large animals – the ones that humans are most likely to hunt and that are most affected by forest loss – disappear from the ecosystem the forest’s plant biodiversity goes down. But why that happens hasn’t been clear. [caption id="attachment_196556" align="aligncenter" width="768"] The mountain toucan (Andigena sp.), pictured here in Colombia, is a common fruit-eating bird in the Andes. Photo by Matthias Schleuning.[/caption] To address this question, a team of scientists from Spain and Germany developed a mathematical model to test the effects of different variables on forest biodiversity, as well as how many seeds actually become seedlings. They reported their results in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B on May 31, demonstrating that the relationship between the sizes of birds and seeds can help explain why large animals can play an outsized role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. In this case, the team, led by doctoral student and ecologist Isabel Donoso of the University of Oviedo in Spain, looked at large frugivorous, or fruit-eating, birds. “It has been suggested that big frugivores are important, but why?” Donoso said in an interview. Field data collected by Donoso’s coauthors in…

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