Tapirs and Seed Dispersal

Posted on Mar 23 2012

Malayan Tapir

How are seeds dispersed now that the large animals, elephants and rhinoceros, have been hunted from their ecological habitat? Who took their place? A Tapir?

Rhinoceros were once plentiful throughout the Southeast Asian ecosystem. They consumed vast quantities of plants and seeds and moved from one area to another pooping the seeds out from one place to another.

However, the demand for rhinos foolishly used as an aphrodisiac in Chinese “medicine” has decimated the population to the point where they are now on the critically endangered list. Conservation efforts by governments have largely failed throughout the world. It will probably take a soldier armed with a machine gun stationed next to each animal with orders to shoot and kill to save the remaining animals.

Elephants were also responsible for the wide dispersal of seeds. Eating and pooping from one place to another, their habitat has been decimated from hunting for ivory and the planting of oil palm plantations.

Could the Malayan tapir replace these wonders for seed dispersal? There are a couple of things in their favor. None of their body parts are used in Chinese potions. Their meat is not favored. Although an endangered species, their survival looks a bit brighter than for rhinos and elephants.

Malayan Tapirs are usually about 1.8 meters long and weigh about 350kg. They are solitary animals and eat fallen fruits and twigs from the forest floor. Running into thick bushes is their defense from Tigers, their major predator.

An experiment* conducted at the Wildlife Reserves in Singapore made an attempt to answer whether the tapir could replace the rhino and elephant for seed dispersal. Nine plant species, seven from Southeast Asia, were fed to eight Malayan tapirs, seven of which were born in captivity.

The fruits, purchased at a local market, included mango, durian, chemedak, rambutan, manosteen, tamarind, longan, dillenia and papaya. A known number of seed fruit were fed to the Tapirs. For example, the rambutan has a large central seed and the number they ate were counted.
Five hours later, the dung was located and the seeds collected. They were then planted in pots to see if they would germinate.

The Tapirs are picky eaters. They did not like the big seeds and when they did pass through the gut, none of the seeds germinated. The Tapirs captured, radio collared and set free in central Malaya and whose range was monitored, pooped only a short distance from the food source.

A preliminary conclusion suggests the Tapir will not replace elephants and rhinos for seed dispersal. However, the authors of the study suggest many more experiments need to be performed.

*Campos-Arceiz, et al Asian Tapirs Are No Elephants When It Comes To Seed Dispersal Biotropica 44(2):220-227 2012

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all

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