Animals play a vital role in restoring forests worldwide

When many people think of forests, they think of trees that serve a variety of crucial functions from acting as carbon sinks to providing wildlife habitats. Yet in regrowing forests we will need to focus on more than just planting trees; we’ll also need to pay attention to another driver of forest recovery: animals.

This is according to an international team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Yale School of the Environment, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who examined regenerating forests in Panama going back up to 100 years.

What they have found is that animals are key to the recovery of tree species richness and abundance to old-growth levels after decades of regrowth.

A reason is that amimals carry a wide variety of seeds from forested areas into deforested ones, thereby spreading vegetation. In the tropics more than 80% of tree species can be dispersed by animals far and wide, which makes the role of animals vital in reforestation.

“Animals are our greatest allies in reforestation,” says Daisy Dent, a tropical ecologist who was the senior author of the study. “Our study prompts a rethink of reforestation efforts to be about more than just establishing plant communities.”

The scientists say that placing regenerating forests near patches of old growth while reducing hunting encourages animals to colonize these new habitats.

“We show that considering the wider ecosystem, as well as features of the landscape, improves restoration efforts,” says Sergio Estrada-Villegas, a biologist at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá who was the study’s first author.

However, most forest restoration efforts continue to focus on increasing tree cover rather than reestablishing the animal-plant interactions that underpin ecosystem function, the scientists note.

“Figuring out how animals contribute to reforestation is prohibitively hard because you need detailed information about which animals eat which plants,” Estrada-Villegas explains.

To obtain that information, the scientists examined data on the forest at the Barro Colorado Nature Monument in the Panama Canal, one of the world’s best studied tropical forests where generations of scientists have been documenting frugivore interactions to understand which animals disperse which tree species.

Estrada-Villegas and Dent mined this long-term dataset to determine the proportion of plants dispersed by four groups of animals: flightless mammals, large birds, small birds, and bats. Their aim was to see how this proportion changed over a century of natural restoration.

This approach has yielded highly detailed data on animal seed dispersal recovery across the longest timeframe of natural restoration.

“Most studies examine the first 30 years of succession, but our data spanning 100 years gives us a rare glimpse into what happens in the late phase of restoration,” Dent says.

Young regenerating forests, it was found, were made up mostly of trees dispersed by small birds. However, as the forest aged, the number of trees dispersed by larger birds increased.

In a surprising discovery the majority of plants were dispersed not by birds but by terrestrial mammals across all forest ages from 20 years old to old growth.

“This result is quite unusual for post-agricultural regenerating forests,” Dent observes. “It is likely that the presence of large tracts of preserved forests near our secondary stands, coupled with low hunting, has allowed the mammal populations to thrive and to bring an influx of seeds from neighboring patches.”

The experts say this newly learned insight should inform forest restoration practices as we can co-opt frugivorous species to help the restoration process and speed up forest recovery.

The post Animals play a vital role in restoring forests worldwide appeared first on Sustainability Times.

This story first appeared on Sustainability Times


Photo: Pixabay/ottawagraphics

© 2022 Sustainability Times.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 SA International License.