Saving the Amazon Through Tapirs

Through their feces, Tapirs prove to be a potential contender to repairing the Amazon Rainforest as a whole.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cover Image
By Angel Liu

Located in Brazil, the Amazon Rainforest is one of the largest rainforests in the world. Unfortunately, due to a lack of response and preventive measures in the area, the forest has been dealing with devastating fires for the past couple of months. Today, the Amazon Rainforest has lost over 20 percent of its trees, as the forest's large carbon supply continues to be released to the atmosphere. The rise of COVID-19 has shifted focus away from the fires, which are gradually consuming the entire rainforest. However, a group of researchers has recently discovered an important pattern that exists within a population of a certain animal species that could be vital in the struggle to save the Amazon and mitigate future fires as well. Through the studies that have shown tapirs in action with seed dispersal, the idea of saving the Amazon Rainforest has become more plausible than ever.

Tapirs, also known as Tapirus terrestris, are herbivores that thrive in South America. According to National Geographic, tapirs have a small trunk that can extend and take grip of objects at ease. Furthermore, the importance of the species is how they travel around the country spreading seeds through their feces. A group of researchers led by ecologist Lucas Paolucci was able to further study this important pattern, which can play a significant role in repairing the damaged forest. This phenomenon has been shown in their recent study on the species published in “bioTropica,” which discusses the effects tapirs have on the forests around them. It was observed that tapirs consume “the fruit of more than 300 plant species [and that] the animals travel through the forest underbrush with their bellies full of seeds...[including] seeds from large, carbon-storing trees..." Tapirs are significant to the ecosystem because they are able to disperse many seeds in a large radius. This emphasizes how through seed distribution, tapirs are able to promote more growth in the area around them.

The study also measured the effects of tapirs on Amazon forests specifically, as they had nearly three times more efficient seed dispersion in damaged forests compared to undamaged ones, which adds to the idea of utilizing tapirs as a major aid to the Amazon Rainforest. Tapirs are able to disperse the seeds of many tree species; the study states how due to the observations that show effective seed dispersal by the tapirs, the species prove to be the “cheapest and […] the most feasible way to achieve large-scale restoration of tropical forests.” Moreover, the fact that tapirs are able to spread tree seeds through their feces throughout a large area provides the ability for the rainforest to gain back the vital carbon lost in the fires.

Paolucci took a trip to the Amazon in 2019, in which he put fake seeds after gathering feces pellets from the tapirs. When Paolucci returned to check the status of the seeds, he was able to see the number of seeds that was dispersed through the feces, therefore allowing him to predict the frequency of plant growth in a certain amount of time. The study is scheduled to be released in 2021 by Paolucci, and this experiment will show more statistical data in support of the tapir's efficient method of regrowing the environment around them. Therefore, this additional experiment would further explain why there should be more research into tapirs and how we can effectively repair the Amazon with them.

Of course, there are a few problems with the idea of using tapirs to repair the Amazon. One is that they were declared vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. This potentially limits the idea of using tapirs to repair the Amazon by placing them in the rainforest, because it creates possible ethical issues concerning the safety of the species. For example, if scientists were to relocate tapirs in South America to the specific Amazon Rainforest region, there may be a chance that they could be harmed by the fires and the ecosystem itself. However, tapirs are known to be able to defend themselves due to having the power of silence and a strong bite. Furthermore, the idea of using tapirs to repair forests is not completely undermined, as we could pay more attention to the species and help it regrow in order to reach this goal.

Tapirs are a species that are both delicate and important to the environment.They are essentially the planters of South America, as they have large impacts when it comes to dispersing a large number of seeds across a wide area. While the species is listed as vulnerable, that does not reject the fact that further research is needed to develop solutions for both the species and the rainforest. These solutions can range from focusing on rebuilding the tapir population to collecting their feces and redistributing them directly into the Amazon Rainforest. If we play the cards right, tapirs could be the key to reconstructing the Amazon.