Large birds can boost forest carbon storage — if deforestation doesn’t interfere

Large birds can boost forest carbon storage — if deforestation doesn’t interfere
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Large birds can boost forest carbon storage — if deforestation doesn’t interfere  Mongabay.com

Large birds can boost forest carbon storage — if deforestation doesn’t interfere

A New Study on the Contribution of Large Fruit-Eating Birds to Carbon Storage in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

  • A new study shows large fruit-eating birds in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest can contribute to a 38% increase in carbon storage by regenerating tropical forest.
  • Species such as the toco toucan, dusky-legged guan and curl-crested jay help transport fruit seeds to degraded areas.
  • The larger the bird, the larger the seed and, consequently, the greater the biomass of the tree that grows from it — thus the greater the carbon sequestration potential.
  • To ensure effective seed dispersal, however, forest fragments must not be too far apart, which is more difficult in highly fragmented areas, such as the Atlantic Forest and deforested parts of the Amazon.

Think of a toucan and you’ll probably picture a toco toucan, with its orange bill and white throat. The largest member of the toucan family, the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) can have a wingspan of more than 1 meter (3 feet) and fly more than 90 meters. On these journeys, it often carries something very precious for the natural regeneration of forests: seeds from the fruit it feeds on.

Like toucans, other species of large frugivorous birds — dusky-legged guans, or jacus (Penelope obscura) and curl-crested jays (Cyanocorax cristatellus), among others — contribute to regenerating tropical forests by dispersing seeds on the ground. In doing so, they help increase a forest’s carbon storage by 38%.

That’s the finding from a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change by researchers working with the Crowther Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, or ETH Zurich.

“Reducing deforestation and restoring forests play a fundamental role in decreasing atmospheric carbon and mitigating climate change. However, there are many barriers to large-scale restoration, such as high costs, the level of soil degradation, and the lack of seed banks,” says study co-author Danielle Leal Ramos, an ecologist at São Paulo State University (Unesp).

In tropical forests like the Amazon or the Atlantic Forest, she says, most plant species depend on animals to disperse their seeds. In degraded areas, birds fill in this role by transporting and planting seeds.

“Our aim [with the study] was to quantify the contribution of fruit-eating birds to natural regeneration and the potential accumulation of carbon in degraded areas,” Leal Ramos says.

The researchers analyzed data collected in recent years in the Atlantic Forest by scientists, students, volunteers, ornithologists, field technicians and community members.

Native to the Atlantic Forest, the jacu (Penelope obscura) has a strong preference for the araçá, whose seeds it defecates almost intact. Image by Dario Sanches via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Impact of Fragmentation on Bird Movements

All frugivorous birds play an important role in forest regeneration. The difference with larger birds, which can eat larger fruits, is that their seeds will grow into trees with greater biomass.

“Typically, trees with higher wood density produce larger fruits. These trees have a greater potential for biomass accumulation and carbon sequestration. They are large, dense-wooded, and slower-growing trees,” Leal Ramos says.

However, the study indicates that in degraded forests the movement of birds is restricted, leading to less seed dispersal and carbon capture.

In these places, forested patches are small and located far apart. As a result, birds have to make longer flights and are more exposed to predators and extreme weather conditions when going from one stretch of forest to another — a problem for species that are used to denser vegetation.

Jenipapo, ingá, copaíba and embaúba, pictured, are among the native tree species that benefit from the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) eating their fruit and spreading their seeds. Image by Bernard DUPONT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“To ensure effective bird-mediated seed dispersal, it is essential to maintain at least 40% forest cover and to keep forest fragments at a distance of no more than 133 meters,” says study lead author Carolina Bello, a postdoctoral researcher at the Crowther Lab.

The study underlines the importance of the balance between fauna and flora for the preservation and restoration of tropical forests. In order for them to remain diverse and efficient, with their ecosystem services functioning, the role of animals in this process must be taken into account.

“Passive restoration is more economical than active restoration [planting trees], as it is cheaper and produces more diverse forests with greater carbon storage potential,” Bello says. “But for it to be successful, we need to ensure that animals contribute to it.”

More Intense in the Amazon

Although the Atlantic Forest is considered to be the most devastated of the Brazilian biomes, with just over 10% of its original forests remaining, a previous study points out that the decrease in carbon storage due to the loss of large frugivorous species is greater in the Amazon Rainforest, especially when taking into account not only birds but also primates and mammals, such as tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) and peccaries (Tayassu pecari and Pecari tajacu).

“The Amazon Rainforest and the Atlantic Forest are tropical forests where frugivorous species are very important,” Bello says. She adds the Amazon region has faced a process of severe deforestation in recent years, leaving highly fragmented landscapes where the movement of birds is also affected.

Predominantly a frugivorous bird, the palm tanager (Tangarum palmarum) inhabits all of South America’s tropical forests. Image courtesy of Mathias Pires.

“It is to be expected that the effects observed in this study for the Atlantic Forest will also be observed in the Amazon, but we need a more precise assessment to understand the magnitude of the effect,” Bello says. “Due to the higher proportion of trees that require animals for their dispersal in the Amazon, we can expect birds to be even more indispensable for restoration there, but we still need to assess the compensatory effect of other groups of animals.”

The conservation and restoration of large forests is essential for combating climate change. Trees capture climate-warming carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into oxygen and plant material through photosynthesis. With birds flying less and dispersing fewer seeds, we risk having fewer trees on the ground and more carbon in the atmosphere.

Banner image: The red-breasted toucan (Ramphastos dicolorus), found in tree canopies mainly in mountainous areas of the Atlantic Forest, feeds on native fruit such as embaúba, pitangueira and juçara. Image by Cláudio Dias Timm via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on June 6, 2024.

Seed dispersal by animals is called ‘zoochory’ — here’s our explainer video with more info:


Bello, C., Crowther, T. W., Ramos, D. L., Morán-López, T., Pizo, M. A., & Dent, D. H. (2024). Frugivores enhance potential carbon recovery in fragmented landscapes. Nature Climate Change14(6), 636-643. doi:10.1038/s41558-024-01989-1

Peres, C. A., Emilio, T., Schietti, J., Desmoulière, S. J., & Levi, T. (2016). Dispersal limitation induces long-term biomass collapse in overhunted Amazonian forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(4), 892-897. doi:10.1073/pnas.1516525113


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SDGs, Targets, and Indicators

1. Which SDGs are addressed or connected to the issues highlighted in the article?

  • SDG 13: Climate Action
  • SDG 15: Life on Land

The article discusses the role of large fruit-eating birds in regenerating tropical forests and increasing carbon storage. This directly relates to SDG 13, which focuses on climate action and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also connects to SDG 15, which aims to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.

2. What specific targets under those SDGs can be identified based on the article’s content?

  • SDG 13.2: Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning
  • SDG 15.1: Ensure conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems

The article highlights the importance of integrating measures to reduce deforestation and restore forests as part of climate change mitigation efforts (SDG 13.2). It also emphasizes the need to conserve and restore terrestrial ecosystems, particularly in degraded areas, to enhance carbon storage and biodiversity (SDG 15.1).

3. Are there any indicators mentioned or implied in the article that can be used to measure progress towards the identified targets?

  • Forest cover percentage
  • Distance between forest fragments
  • Carbon sequestration potential

The article suggests that maintaining at least 40% forest cover and keeping forest fragments within a distance of no more than 133 meters are indicators of effective bird-mediated seed dispersal and successful restoration efforts. Additionally, the increase in carbon storage resulting from the regrowth of trees from dispersed seeds can be used as an indicator of progress towards climate change mitigation.

Table: SDGs, Targets, and Indicators

SDGs Targets Indicators
SDG 13: Climate Action 13.2: Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning – Forest cover percentage
– Carbon sequestration potential
SDG 15: Life on Land 15.1: Ensure conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems – Forest cover percentage
– Distance between forest fragments
15.x: Protect biodiversity and natural habitats – Carbon sequestration potential

Note: The specific indicators mentioned in the article have been included in the table.

Source: news.mongabay.com


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