The Amazon rainforest swept news headlines and garnered global attention because of its destructive forest fires in 2019; according to this article (1), the resulting deforestation stripped any protection of natural land, its biodiversity and its indiginous animals. Though the rainforest has slowly been rebuilding, scientists project the fires will have lasting effects for decades, or even centuries. However, ecologist Lucas Paolucci found a surprising contributor to the Amazon ecosystem and an even more surprising method of contributing: feces from tapirs. With the help of dung beetles, this animal might be a key agent for transporting and distributing plants across the Amazon for regrowth.
Tapirs, known in a group as a “candle,” is the largest mammal in South America and a creature that looks like a pig with a trunk. They are known as the “gardeners of the Amazon;” they eat over 300 types of plants and do not digest the seeds, so as they travel across the underbrush, the seeds travel with them and are planted in their stool. They are notably able to carry larger seeds from carbon-storing trees that smaller animals cannot, making them ecologically important.
Paolucci and his team published an experiment (2) in 2019 to determine if tapirs were an asset in the reconstruction of burned or destroyed areas, and monitored different plots of land with cameras to see each distribution of seeds in the feces. He found that the animals distributed nearly 130,000 seeds total, and over three times as many seeds per hectare (10,000 sq feet) in burned areas than untouched forests, possibly due to preference in the sunshine without trees. When the fires hit later that year, Paolucci searched deeper to see what other factors contributed to the tapirs’ success in transporting plants.
What he found was the germination of thousands of plants is not from the tapirs alone. Decomposers, specifically dung beetles, are responsible for pushing the feces around and burying it for later consumption. This relationship is one of commensalism, as the dung beetle benefits with an energy resource and the tapir is unaffected, a concept we learned in our last unit studying the ecosystem. As a result of this relationship, the seeds are planted and ready for growth in a new location, ultimately rebuilding the ecosystem lost to the fires throughout the Amazon. This result is a perfect example of different species’ dependence on each other to balance nature, a key part of biology as a whole.
Because of illegal deforestation and forest fires, the Amazon has lost countless resources, and according to biologist Liliana Dávalos, it is “moving towards a near future of lower agricultural productivity, less food security and more social and economic instability” (1). However, tapirs can clearly provide cost effective help for regrowth and revitalization. First, we need to ensure the safety of the animals.
The population of lowland tapirs is now considered vulnerable because of their habitat loss and illegal hunting. Between 15 and 17 percent of the Amazon has been lost due to the fires, and will only increase if the deforestation rates continue. Though it will be a difficult recovery, the plants and animals are contributing to their environment and providing natural aid to help rebuild the rainforest. We humans have a role, as well: raise awareness and protect the animals whose habitat was destroyed.