To Slow Climate Change We Need to Save Large Fruit-Eating Mammals

In terms of climate change we know there’s a lot we can do, for example cutting down on fossil fuels and other man made contributions that are driving this planet-wide threat. One other component, and one that hasn’t got as much attention, is acting to save wildlife that play key roles in maintaining our eco-system.

One such group of animals is the frugivores. These are animals that primarily eat fruits and as a result disperse the seeds of the trees the fruits originate from. Small frugivores, for example small birds, bats and marsupials, are well known for their role in helping trees spread. However, larger frugivores are less well-known but new research shows that they are key in helping the spread of larger trees.

Publishing in Science Advances, researchers at the University of East Anglia studied data surrounding more than 2,000 tree species from Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, and more than 800 animal species from the same region. 

What they found was that while smaller frugivores, who are usually (though not always) left alone by hunters, disperse seeds, they are only dispersing seeds of smaller trees. Larger frugivores, for example the tapier (pictured), as well as large primates and even larger birds like toucans, are the ones responsible for dispersing seeds from heavy-wooded trees.

With this in mind, large frugivores may be pivotal in dispersing large trees, and yet hunting of these species is unfortunately common to the point where species like the toucan are facing severe threat from human activity (both hunting and habitat loss), while tapiers are, depending on the species, either threatened or endangered.

“Large birds and mammals provide almost all the seed dispersal services for large-seeded plants. Several large vertebrates are threatened by hunting, illegal trade and habitat loss. But the steep decline of the megafauna in overhunted tropical forest ecosystems can bring about large unforeseen impacts,” Professor Carlos Peres, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, is quoted as saying. “We show that the decline and extinction of large animals will over time induces a decline in large hardwood trees. This in turn negatively affects the capacity of tropical forests to store carbon and therefore their potential to counter climate change.”

But what is so important about heavy-wooded trees? The connection here lies in carbon capture. This is the process of trees taking in carbon dioxide from the environment and storing it in their bodies. Trees from places like the Amazon have been shown to, figuratively speaking, punch above their weight when it comes to taking in carbon dioxide, and so are thought to be crucial to our plans of cutting CO2 in our atmosphere.

However, they face a number of substantial threats. For example, deforestation, logging, forest fires and climate change that has already occurred has put a great deal of pressure on such forests. The loss of larger frugivores, the researchers believe, could significantly harm the overall health of the tropical ecosystem and its ability to create and maintain large hardwood trees, which as explained above would then reduce the carbon capture those forests are capable of.

So what to do with this information? As the study’s authors note in the study’s abstract, this information needs to be taken into account as we form environmental policy as, at the moment, this may be an area we are overlooking:

Although intergovernmental policies to reduce carbon emissions and reforestation programs have been mostly focused on deforestation, our results demonstrate that defaunation, and the loss of key ecological interactions, also poses a serious risk for the maintenance of tropical forest carbon storage.

This again demonstrates how hunting and man-made population pressures, like encroachment into animal territories together with deforestation, can all add up to affect the environment in ways we might never have guessed. It also demonstrates how animals that may look unremarkable from our perspective actually can be playing a vital role in their habitats. Once again, it’s up to us to modify our behavior so that we can restore some balance to the natural systems playing out around us that are vital to keeping our planet hospitable to us and many other species.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Ashley B.
Ashley S2 years ago

Let's do whatever we can for the planet and the animals!!

Patricia Harris
John Taylor2 years ago

Peggy Binnion, our government is trying to hold us back from trying to do the right thing, and we need to show them that they have no control over us whatsoever!! We have free will, and we have the right to do whatever we want, especially if it means interfering with big businesses like, the mining, logging, and fracking industries!!

Peggy Binnion
Peggy B2 years ago

Education is the answer. The workings of nature's ecosystem should start in kindergarten along with geography and differences in the world's cultures. With transportation and internet opening the world up all these things are important and essential toward universal world communities and the planet. Ignorance holds us back.

Dave C.
David C2 years ago

noted, thanks

Patricia Harris
John Taylor2 years ago

Fred L., I do understand that the more of us, the less there are of natural resource, be it animal, plant, or earth formation. But, the more we keep trying our very best to convince our world leaders that we need to save what resources we have left in order for humanity to survive, then the more likely we'll see some improvements!

Fred L.
Fred L2 years ago

I agree with Patricia Harris (gosh, you're a positive woman) that the planet and Mother Nature could mostly heal itself even if there are humans on board. If humans were reduced by a factor of 2,000, say, it might allow wildlife to make a comeback. I'm hopeful that Mother Earth could tolerate 3,750,000 of our rapacious, violent species, down from the intolerable 7,500,000,000 of us now.

Patricia Harris
John Taylor2 years ago

DIane L., this battle is ''NOT'' lost!!!! We are ''NOT'' about to give up that easily!!!! Like I said before, ''nature lovers'' are the only ones that can/will save the day, and we are going to win this battle!!!! Kate K., ''NOT'' all of us should to go extinct!!!! only the people that don't give a damn, need to be wiped out from this planet!!!! People, like you and me should be excluded from the ''got to go'' list!!!! Aria S., this planet is ''NOT'' doomed while there are good people who are willing to fight for it!!!!

Nelson Baker
Nelson Baker2 years ago

Thank you for the article.

Susie Reynolds
Susie Reynolds2 years ago

The damned 'd' and 'h' words again (deforestation and hunting). These, on their own, directly caused by human actions, are going to lead to our own decline sooner rather than later. So surely shall we reap what we are now very badly sowing.