In days such as these when climate change dominates our headlines, it usually tells tales of the countless species that could be facing imminent extinction, or, what we as humans can do to stop it. Recently, we saw the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, and we heard of the Paris Agreement, aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. However, as with many things, no matter how amazing and groundbreaking the technologies that us humans produce are, there is no greater master of science, than the natural world. When it comes to the Earth as a living system, mother nature is brimming with innovative ways that have, until recently, regulated our climate. In tropical forests, two of these regulators come in the surprising form of primates and birds.
Due to their lifestyles, monkeys and birds that feed on the fruits of the forest are quite the eco-warriors, with their everyday activities helping to regulate carbon emissions. So, what is it that these monkeys and birds are doing? Setting up solar panels atop the tallest trees? Creating their own little wind farms in the canopy? Unfortunately not. As entertaining as such ideas are, it is actually something far more simple. In fact, monkeys and birds, are excellent seed dispersers. Species including the howler monkey and birds such as the toucan and hornbill are vital when it comes to the survival of hard-wood tropical trees.
As we know, tropical forests are critical to our climate, containing 40% of all the carbon on the Earths surface. The felling of tropical forests causes an increase of approximately 15% in greenhouse gases, which increase global warming. In the rainforest, large, thick and long living hardwood trees are excellent carbon stores, but the seeds that they produce can only be spread by large animals. However, once again, we humans are practicing activities that are damaging the relationship between these hardwoods and their seed dispersers, damaging our climate even further. Monkeys and birds, are suffering from one of our favourite and, in some cases, most damaging hobbies: hunting.
As a result of this, hardwood trees are in a survival struggle, with many of them being replaced by softwood trees, which have smaller seeds that are easily dispersed by smaller species such as marsupials and bats. However, softwoods have a much lower capacity to store carbon. In fact, the situation is so bad that not only are these larger animals disappearing in their native forests, they are also disappearing in protected areas, where hunting is prohibited. Although we are well aware of the perils of deforestation in terms of the trees themselves, little attention is paid to how the loss of species can also cause declines in hardwoods.
New research has highlighted this problem and was carried out at Sao Paulo State University in Brazil and focused on the countries Atlantic rainforests. In Brazil, 95% of all tree species rely on large animals to spread their seeds. The study found that the loss of species such as woolly spider monkeys and toucans, leads to a significant loss of hardwoods. According to the study, this results in a 10-15% reduction in the carbon storage capacity of these ‘mixed’ forests.
However, the problem does not end at the Brazilian borders. This is a worldwide problem, with the tropics of Africa and southeastern Asia also experiencing huge losses of their large animals. In November of this year, we heard the first estimates of the number of threatened species in the Amazon rainforest. Th news was worrying to say the least. It was revealed that more than 50% of species are heading toward extinction. Species that will suffer include the Brazil nut tree, wild cacao and acai tree, which are not only important food sources, but also require other species in order for them to survive.
If we can put a stop to the hunting practices that cause the loss of species in our tropical forests, we will not just save our animals and the trees and plants they serve, but we will also slow the rate of climate change, help reforestation and protect our vulnerable species.
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