How Costa Rica's tapirs are key to carbon storage

September 20, 2016, 8 a.m.
south american tapir
Photo: Erni/Shutterstock

These porcine-like fruit-eaters help to boost the forest's ability to lock away carbon through the process of dispersing seeds, along with other larger fruit-eating animals like toucans and monkeys.

Researchers behind a 2015 study asked an important question: If the biggest trees in the tropical forests rely on large herbivorous mammals and birds to disperse their seeds, what happens if those animals aren’t around to disperse those seeds?

Using computer simulations, they found that even if only a small number of the large-seeded trees disappeared, the forest’s ability to store carbon would significantly decline. One estimate puts the drop in carbon storage ability of a forest at as much as 12 percent if just these animal-dependent trees disappeared. These big trees are essential, and thus so too are tapirs and other large frugivores.

“If big frugivores disperse big trees, then carbon stocks depend on big frugivores,” Carolina Bello, an ecologist at São Paulo State University in Brazil, told Ensia.

The research authors write:

Although intergovernmental policies to reduce carbon emissions and reforestation programs have been mostly focused on deforestation, our results demonstrate that defaunation, and the loss of key ecological interactions, also poses a serious risk for the maintenance of tropical forest carbon storage.

“In Costa Rica, [conservationist Esteban] Brenes-Mora has seized on the connection between large herbivores and carbon sequestration as a way to highlight the importance of preserving the tapirs, under threat from habitat loss as pineapple plantations expand and from traffic on the Pan-American Highway,” reports Ensia.

Protecting the seed-dispersing animals is a way to prevent deforestation and keep carbon storage at a maximum.