Investing in frugivores, and the future of biodiversity

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My first-time hiking was through a 1.5-kilometer, manicured trail near the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California. The crisp air and the 77-degree Fahrenheit temperature was perfect for shorts and a tank. I never even broke a sweat.

The second time I hiked it was through 36-kilometers of Central African tropical rainforest. Termite ants fought for the opportunity to suture their mandibles into my skin and become martyrs for their queen. Eighty-seven degree weather, 94 percent humidity, and “wide-mouth” water bottles kept me drenched.

Why did I get five vaccinations, wait in seven-hour passport lines, and need a prescription for a pill whose major side effect is “violent dreams?” It was all to conduct a “Frugivore Feeding and Abundance” survey of the recently reopened Bouamir Research Station in Cameroon.

Frugivores are a group of animals whose diets are comprised of mostly fruit. Chimpanzees, elephants, and gorillas are all frugivores. Trees don’t produce fruits because they love the attention of animals, nor do they produce fruits because they have an innate desire to be useful. Fruits are the by-product of thousands of years of natural selection attempting to efficiently disperse seeds.

When a black-casqued hornbill consumes a palm fruit and its seeds, the seeds of the palm fruit aren’t doomed. They have just moved on to the next steps of the seed dispersal cycle. The black-casqued hornbill will continue living, and eventually its droppings will serve as a vehicle for dispersal for these seeds. Although some seeds are dispersed by abiotic factors—like the wind—animals are so important to the dispersal of seeds that recent studies estimate 80 percent of all African woody plants have fruits and seeds that are adapted to being dispersed by frugivores. Without frugivores dispersing these seeds, new trees wouldn’t germinate, and forests wouldn’t regenerate.

Relatively little is known about the life history of key frugivores: range, movement, and population size are currently debated or unknown for many species. Researchers in the late 90s realized this and estimated and recorded frugivore population sizes at Bouamir from 1995-1998 to create a benchmark for their abundances. Unfortunately, there’s no contemporary abundance data. Increased hunting, climate change, and logging have had unidentified consequences on frugivores, and our study planned to elucidate these consequences.

garcia2My team’s research planned to assess and quantify the changes in frugivore population size over the past 20 years at the Bouamir Research Station. By surveying the population sizes of frugivores at the station today, we can infer current densities and compare them to recorded frugivore densities of the past. Temporal analysis of abundances is important because it allows conservation strategies to focus on species that are the most in decline, and not just popular flagship species.

Long-term monitoring studies often involve immense resources with little immediate payoff. Fortunately, just like trees have been “nudged” to invest in their future with fruit, humans have been investing in their own future by monitoring biodiversity. My team had a fun-filled, adventurous time traversing new biomes for these data points, and hopefully, they will help in the battle against corporations and politicians who yearn to continue conducting “business as usual” with the environment.

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