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Mammal loss is accelerating across Latin America, threatening the delicate ecosystem balance that ultimately provides communities with food, shelter and livelihoods, new research warns.
The extinction or decline in the populations of mammals — particularly the largest of these animals — can have far-reaching consequences for the natural processes of ecosystems, such as seed dispersal, pollination and even oxygen production, a study published in Ecosystem Services journal warns.
‘Ecosystem services’ are the benefits that people and communities derive from the environment — clean air and water, food and materials, as well as cultural and spiritual services.
Researchers used data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a range of literature to examine the distribution of more than 1,000 mammal species across the Neotropical region. This region is one of the six major biogeographic areas of the world and extends across Central America, the Caribbean and South America.
“Losing southern muriquis and tapirs means altering the carbon stock systems of our biosphere, which means accelerating climate change and, ultimately, the collapse of our societies.”
Fabio Olmos, Latin America director, Permian Global
Modelling a scenario where all critically endangered species in Latin America died out, or where the populations of vulnerable mammals were halved, the study argues that the ecosystem services that would be most affected would include ecotourism, soil formation, disease control and protein acquisition by traditional peoples.
This could snowball into increasing species loss and greater impact on green areas, say the authors.
Adriano Chiarello, an expert in Neotropical mammals and a professor of conservation biology at the University of São Paulo in Ribeirão Preto, says this scenario would be dangerous. He says ecosystems services provided by mammals are essential for the maintenance of native forests.
“Each species that dies signifies the loss of a symbiotic relationship with the forests, ultimately weakening their capacity for perpetuation. Forests are not just made of plants, but also of the animals that live within them,” Chiarello, who was not involved in the study, tells SciDev.Net.