AboutZoos, Since 2008


Com­pre­hen­sive study high­lights the impor­tance of the Atlantic For­est system

pub­lished 06 Feb­ru­ary 2018 | mod­i­fied 06 Feb­ru­ary 2018

Imag­ine your home­town or city’s entire pop­u­la­tion had to live on just one tenth of the land it used to — essen­tials like food and shel­ter would quickly go scarce, and it’d be just about impos­si­ble for the pop­u­lace to sus­tain itself. This, in broad strokes, is what’s hap­pen­ing to the fauna and flora of the Atlantic For­est, the sec­ond most bio­di­verse for­est sys­tem in South Amer­ica (after the Amazon).

Span­ning the Atlantic coast of Brazil into east­ern Paraguay and Argentina, the Atlantic For­est once cov­ered about 1.2 mil­lion km2 of habi­tat. Today, only 812 per­cent of this orig­i­nal habi­tat space remains. Defor­esta­tion poses a sub­stan­tial threat to the region’s native plant and ani­mal species, and for mam­mals in par­tic­u­lar, habi­tat loss is the main dri­ver of extinction.

This, of course, is a trou­bling real­ity for sci­en­tists study­ing the Atlantic Forest’s mam­mals. Wor­ried that species are dis­ap­pear­ing at faster rates than they can be stud­ied, 96 of these sci­en­tists took col­lec­tive action and wrote a paper cat­a­logu­ing traits such as body mass, repro­duc­tive attrib­utes, and tail length in mam­mals native to the Atlantic For­est. The paper is pub­lished on 5 Feb­ru­ary in the jour­nal Ecol­ogy.

To give a sense of the project’s scale: the 96 co-​authors of this paper com­piled trait infor­ma­tion on 39,850 indi­vid­u­als from 279 dif­fer­ent mam­mal species and 388 sep­a­rate populations.

chacoan opossumThis is the Cha­coan gracile opos­sum (Cryp­to­nanus cha­coen­sis), a mar­su­pial species whose data is rep­re­sented in this study.
Credit and copy­right: Noé de la San­cha, The Field Museum

This is the first com­pre­hen­sive dataset of this for­est system’s mam­malian trait data,” said Noé de la San­cha, co-​author and research asso­ciate at the Field Museum in Chicago. “We wanted to cre­ate a resource so that sci­en­tists wouldn’t have to dig through every nat­ural his­tory museum in the coun­try to find these data. It’s a step­ping stone for future research, putting that out for every­body to use — it’s a really big change in science.”

De la San­cha explained that when zool­o­gists rely solely on their own data, they’re lim­ited in what ques­tions they’re able to ask and answer. An exam­ple: de la Sancha’s research focuses specif­i­cally on rodents and mar­su­pi­als in east­ern Paraguay. He’s done years of field­work, col­lect­ing thou­sands of spec­i­mens and author­ing dozens of papers along the way. Still, if he wanted to fig­ure out how the small mam­mals he stud­ies devel­oped their traits over thou­sands of years, or how they ended up in east­ern Paraguay in the first place, he’d need to look for more evi­dence else­where, likely from nat­ural his­tory muse­ums in the U.S. or abroad. This process can be time-​consuming and costly.

Hope­fully if these types of papers start get­ting atten­tion, peo­ple will start to value what they have in their back­yards. This paper high­lights the impor­tance of this for­est sys­tem, and that could poten­tially get locals pumped about con­serv­ing it.

Noé de la San­cha, co-​author, Inte­gra­tive Research Cen­ter, The Field Museum of Nat­ural His­tory, Chicago, and Depart­ment of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, Chicago State Uni­ver­sity, Chicago, USA

For this paper, every­one threw their data into this large, exten­sive col­lec­tive,” de la San­cha said. “We’re putting puz­zle pieces together. Hav­ing more data avail­able, we can start to ask more inter­est­ing ques­tions — ques­tions of ecol­ogy and mod­el­ling that have more seri­ous impact than cur­sory descriptors.”

Fer­nando Gonçalves, lead author and grad­u­ate stu­dent at Uni­ver­si­dade Estad­ual Paulista (UNESP) — São Paulo State Uni­ver­sity in São Paulo, Brazil, agreed with de la San­cha that this paper expands pos­si­bil­i­ties for zoo­log­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal research.

Ninety-​six authors accepted the chal­lenge to go back to their field notes and send as much infor­ma­tion on mam­mal mor­pho­log­i­cal traits as they could,” Gonçalves said. “And thanks to them, we’ll be able to pro­vide raw data for eco­log­i­cal and evo­lu­tion­ary stud­ies for researchers all over the world.”

This paper is a crit­i­cal and urgent step in the right direc­tion, pro­vid­ing sci­en­tists with an expan­sive research toolkit as Atlantic For­est habi­tats con­tinue to shrink. In turn, these sci­en­tists hope to draw atten­tion to the Atlantic For­est as a region to pro­tect, so that they can con­tinue their stud­ies and learn more about the impact of fac­tors like cli­mate change and human activ­ity on these mam­mal species.

There’s still a great deal we don’t know about our bio­di­ver­sity — and as a con­se­quence, we don’t know what we’re los­ing,” de la San­cha empha­sized. He hopes this paper, on top of serv­ing as a resource for fel­low sci­en­tists, high­lights the impor­tance of mam­mal species to the Atlantic Forest’s ecosys­tem. He’s par­tic­u­larly pas­sion­ate about small mam­mals’ role in this ecosystem.

These are the dudes that drive the world,” de la San­cha said, point­ing to a shelf of rat spec­i­men in his lab. “It’s rodents. It’s not pri­mates, lions, bears. Rodents are the most impor­tant group of mam­mals, the base of most food chains. They dis­perse seeds for trees and spores for fungi. They also act as vec­tors for var­i­ous kinds of dis­eases that might affect us. And the best way to tar­get those dis­eases is study­ing the rats affected and why.”

De la San­cha sees his con­tri­bu­tions to this paper as “putting my grain of sand on the beach, so to speak.” And his research, along with the other 95 grains of sand that com­prise this paper, could make a real, tan­gi­ble impact on how we study and care for the Atlantic Forest.

(Source: The Field Museum press release, 01.02.2018)

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