In the Atlantic Forest, the lowland tapir is at risk of extinction

Lowland tapir populations in the Atlantic Forest in South America are at risk of almost complete disappearance, scientists have estimated. The main long-term threat to their well-being is population isolation, as hunting and highways keep populations away from each other. Urgent measures need to be taken to connect isolated populations and ensure the long-term conservation of tapirs, warn the authors of a new study published in the open-access journal Neotropical Biology and Conservation.

Lowland tapir populations in the Atlantic Forest in South America are at risk of almost complete disappearance, scientists have estimated. Weighing up to 250 kg, the animal can adapt to most habitats in South America—but its populations continue to decline across its range.

Today, its survival is seriously threatened: it can be found in just 1.78% of its original distributional range in the Atlantic Forest biome, which covers parts of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. The main long-term threat to its well-being is population isolation, as hunting and highways keep populations away from each other.

Lowland tapir. Photo by Patricia Medici

Urgent measures need to be taken to connect isolated populations and ensure the long-term conservation of tapirs, warn the authors of a new study on the distribution and conservation status of lowland tapirsin the South American Atlantic Forest, published in the open-access journal Neotropical Biology and Conservation

The research was done by Kevin Flesher, PhD, researcher at the Biodiversity Study Center, Michelin Ecological Reserve, Bahia, and Patrícia Medici, PhD, coordinator of the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative, a project developed by the Institute for Ecological Research in Brazil, and chair of the Tapir Specialist Group at the Species Survival Commission in the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

 “Of the 48 tapir populations identified during the study, between 31.3% and 68.8% are demographically unviable (low number of individuals), and between 70.8% and 93.8% of the populations are genetically unviable (low gene flow). Only 3-14 populations are still viable in the long run when both criteria are considered. The evidence suggests that with the appropriate conservation actions, the lowland tapir could be broadly distributed throughout the Atlantic Forest,” says Kevin Flesher. 

Lowland tapir. Photo by Alexander Blanco

“Tapirs have low reproductive potential, including a long reproductive cycle with the birth of just one young after a gestation period of 13-14 months and intervals of up to three years between births. Our populational simulations clearly show how, in the case of small populations, even the loss of a single individual per year can result in rapid extinction of an entire local population,” adds Medici. 

Lowland tapir. Photo by Bill Konstant

Kevin Flesher dedicated 15 years to visiting 93 reserves in the Atlantic Forest, talking to people and analyzing 217 datasets, before he compiled the necessary data to design conservation actions that can ensure the survival of tapirs in the area. 

The states of São Paulo and Paraná in Brazil have the largest number of remaining populations: 14 and 10, respectively. The two largest populations are in Misiones, Argentina, and in the neighboring Iguaçu and Turvo reserves, in Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

“As far as our knowledge goes, there is no evidence of movement of tapirs between these populations,” points out Medici.

The distance between population fragments, however, is not what is stopping them.

“The central problem is the multiple threats they face while crossing the habitat,” explains Flesher. Highways are one major obstacle that limits the access of tapirs to forests with adequate habitat. “For example, the heavy traffic on highway BR-101 (which cuts the Brazilian Atlantic Forest from North to South) is a death trap to wildlife. Tapirs often die when attempting to cross it,” explains Medici. 

The construction of highways and expansion of traffic in and around natural areas is a serious threat to large tapir populations that might otherwise have the chance to thrive, like those in Misiones, Argentina, and Serra do Mar, Brazil. 

“Roadkill is a significant cause of death in six of the eight reservations in which highways cross tapir populations, and the expansion of the roadway grid in the country threatens to cause population fragmentation in at least four populations,” points out Flesher. This is why finding ways to allow tapirs to cross highways safely is an urgent conservation priority.

Lowland tapir. Photo by Patricia Medici

The results of the study, however, give cause for “cautious optimism” for the future of tapirs in the area: after decades of dedicated conservation efforts, the situation is starting to improve. 

“Despite these continuing challenges for tapir conservation, most populations appear to be stable or increasing and the conservation outlook for the species is better than several decades ago, when the first efforts to protect the species began,” Kevin Flesher concludes.

Research article:

Flesher KM, Medici EP (2022) The distribution and conservation status of Tapirus terrestris in the South American Atlantic Forest. Neotropical Biology and Conservation 17(1): 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/neotropical.17.e71867

19th-century bee cells in a Panamanian cathedral shed light on human impact on ecosystems

About 120 clusters of 19th-century orchid bee nests were found during restoration work on the altarpiece of Basilica Cathedral in Casco Viejo (Panamá). Having conducted the first pollen analysis for these extremely secretive insects, the researchers identified the presence of 48 plant species, representing 23 families.

Casco Viejo, Panamá in 1875, as seen from the summit of Cerro Ancón.
A white tower of the Cathedral where bees were nesting is visible in the distant background in the centre of the peninsula.
Photo by Eadweard Muybridge, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of Mitchell and Nancy Steir.

Despite being “neotropical-forest-loving creatures,” some orchid bees are known to tolerate habitats disturbed by human activity. However, little did the research team of Paola Galgani-Barraza (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) expect to find as many as 120 clusters of nearly two-centuries-old orchid bee nests built on the altarpiece of the Basilica Cathedral in Casco Viejo (Panamá). Their findings are published in the open-access Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

Locations of nest cell aggregations of Eufriesea surinamensis within the Cathedral in Casco Viejo, Panamá
Photo by Paola Galgani-Barraza

This happened after restoration work, completed in 2018 in preparation for the consecration of a new altar by Pope Francis, revealed the nests. Interestingly, many cells were covered with gold leaf and other golden material applied during an earlier restoration following an 1870 fire, thus aiding the reliable determination of the age of the clusters. The cells were dated to the years prior to 1871-1876.

The bee species, that had once constructed the nests, was identified as the extremely secretive Eufriesea surinamensis. Females are known to build their nests distant from each other, making them very difficult to locate in the field. As a result, there is not much known about them: neither about the floral resources they collect for food, nor about the materials they use to build their nests, nor about the plants they pollinate.

However, by analysing the preserved pollen for the first time for this species, the researchers successfully detected the presence of 48 plant species, representing 43 genera and 23 families. Hence, they concluded that late-nineteenth century Panama City was surrounded by a patchwork of tropical forests, sufficient to sustain nesting populations of what today is a forest-dwelling species of bee.

Not only did the scientists unveil important knowledge about the biology of orchid bees and the local floral diversity in the 19th century, but they also began to uncover key information about the functions of natural ecosystems and their component species, where bees play a crucial role as primary pollinators. Thus, the researchers hope to reveal how these environments are being modified by collective human behaviour, which is especially crucial with the rapidly changing environment that we witness today.

The orchid bee Eufriesea surinamensis
Photo by Paola Galgani-Barraza

Original source:

Galgani-Barraza P, Moreno JE, Lobo S, Tribaldos W, Roubik DW, Wcislo WT (2019) Flower use by late nineteenth-century orchid bees (Eufriesea surinamensis, Hymenoptera, Apidae) nesting in the Catedral Basílica Santa María la Antigua de Panamá. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 74: 65-81. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.74.39191