According to a team of researchers affiliated with São Paulo State University (UNESP) in Rio Claro, Brazil, the extinction of South America's two largest herbivores—the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) - would cause a significant decrease in forest diversity throughout the continent.
The results of experiments that began ten years ago showed that plant communities are more diversified in areas where both species are present and less diversified in forests inhabited by only one species. The two species have complementary ecological functions.
The study, which was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation—FAPESP, is published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Ecology.
It was conducted as part of the Thematic Project "Ecological consequences of defaunation in the Atlantic Rainforest," led by Professor Mauro Galetti under the auspice of the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP).
Tapirs and peccaries used to be found almost everywhere in South America's forests, but both species are now endangered in many localities owing to poaching and deforestation for agriculture. According to the researchers, the ecological roles of these species and their importance in the ecosystem services of the forests (biodiversity, nutrient cycling, carbon storage and maintenance of water sources, among others) are poorly understood.
Peccaries consume large amounts of seeds and seedlings. They live in large family groups that can exceed one hundred individuals. Their foraging habits and soil trampling help significantly reduce understory growth in tropical forests.