The extinction of species capable of spreading seeds is detrimental to plants that lose their ability to migrate to unfavorable places due to climate change, according to a new study published in Thursday’s journal. Science.
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“When we lose birds or mammals, we don’t just lose those species. We also lose their important ecological function, which is seed dispersal,” Evan Frick of Rice University told AFP.
This study is the first to quantify the scale of the problem globally, and estimates that the resilience of plants to climate change that requires animal cooperation has already fallen by 60%.
Tree species in areas that have become inhospitable due to global warming, for example, may migrate to other areas where it rains more, but they must do so in seed form.
Half of the plants rely on animals to eat the fruit or nuts to take them further, while others rely only on the wind.
For their work, the Danish researchers used data collected by thousands of previous studies on animal behavior to create a map of their contribution to seed dispersal.
Then they compared a map that cancels out the impact of human-caused species extinctions and land shrinkage.
Their models included many details: “What animals eat what seeds, what fruits, and how far seeds can be transported from the original plant …,” for example, stated Evan Frick, lead author of the study.
For animals that were not specifically studied, their behavior was predicted by computer using data from similar species.
The results were surprising. The loss of seed dispersal was particularly noticeable in temperate regions of North and South America, Europe and Australia – although only a small percentage of mammal and bird species were lost.
The disturbance was least in the tropics of South America, Africa or Southeast Asia. However, it could accelerate if other important species, such as elephants, become extinct.
The study shows that animal protection efforts can help combat climate change.
Evan Frick concludes that “a decline in animals can disrupt ecological networks in ways that threaten the resilience of entire ecosystems.”
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