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Interactions of peccaries and tapirs on plants, including seed predation, dispersal, and the impact of tramping

Principal Investigator: Harald Beck, PhD

My overarching research interest focus on understanding how natural (i.e. treefalls) and anthropogenic disturbances (i.e. overhunting of mammals such as peccaries and tapirs) affect the population dynamics and species richness of animal and plant species in the Amazon. My current research in the Amazonia focuses on various interactions of peccaries and tapirs on plants, including seed predation, dispersal, and the impact of tramping. For example, the dramatic importance of peccaries for Amazonian forest ecology is apparent to anyone who has watched a 300-strong herd of these animals thunder through the understorey. But across vast sections of the Amazon the species has now been driven locally extinct by hunters, and a new generation of Amazonian trees is growing to maturity without the massive seed predation, soil disturbance, and physical damage wrought by large peccary populations. In areas where peccaries are extinct, changes in the plant recruitment, distribution and species richness should occur, but no one yet knows what those changes are and what mechanisms underlie them. After compiling a review for a book chapter on peccary-plant interactions and using my field data, I developed a conceptual model that hypothesizes interactions of peccaries with plants and other animal species, as a first step towards understanding how forests are likely to change without peccaries. These results are not only crucial to understand tropical diversity but will also help in developing new conservation strategies for peccaries. To test the model, I have set up several long-term experiments including over 200 exclosures in Cocha Cashu and Los Amigos (at two pristine field sites, separated over 200 km, in the Peruvian Amazon.
Other research projects include experiments on different modes of seed dispersal, predation by peccaries and tapirs. For example, germination tests on seeds obtained from fecal matters of peccaries and tapir indicate that peccaries disperse only small seed of plants, whereas tapir disperse seeds of large and small sizes.

One question we (the IUCN Tapir Specialists Group), are currently testing is the impact of tapir trampling on seedling and sapling communities. To address this question, we have established hundreds of 5 x 2 meter exclosures across five Neotropical forests and in Malaysia. The results will not only advance our understanding of tapir-plant interactions, but will also be crucial for future conservation strategies, i.e. what changes could be predict in the absence of tapirs or other megaherbivores.

Contact

Harald Beck Ph.D.
Center for Tropical Conservation
Duke University
P.O. Box 90381
NC 27708
Phone (919) 490-9081
harald@duke.edu
http://www.duke.edu/web/ctc/staff/haraldbeck/haraldbeck.html