For Dung Beetles, Monkey Business Is Serious Stuff

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 26, 2004

Monkey see, monkey eat, monkey doo.

So the seeds of the Amazon's much-lauded biodiversity are spread around the rain forest, in many cases. And where there's monkey business, so too are dung beetles, according to Kevina Vulinec, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Delaware State University in Dover.

The dung beetles, as their name suggests, make a living off other animals' waste. In the process they sow whatever seeds make it through the treasure-dropping animals' digestive tracts.

"Dung beetles are essential to tropical biodiversity, and they may be more essential than we even know," said Vulinec, who studies the interactions between monkeys and dung beetles. His aim is to understand their roles in seed dispersal and thus tropical biodiversity.

Of particular interest to Vulinec are the applications of this line of research to conservation efforts aimed at regenerating areas of the Amazon rain forest that have been cleared for agriculture and ranching.

Alejandro Estrada, a wildlife ecologist the Universidad Nacional Autóoma de México in Veracruz, said "studies in several neotropical forests have shown that in the natural process of rain forest regeneration, the primate-dung beetle-plant interaction plays an important role."

Seed Dispersal

A piece of fruit may not fall very far from its parent tree. But in the Amazon the seeds in the fruit need to get as far away as possible if they want to stand a chance at survival.

"If the seeds don't get away from the parent tree, they are susceptible to all the diseases the parent tree has," Vulinec said.

In 1928 auto magnate Henry Ford learned this lesson the hard way. He established a rubber plantation in Brazil so that he could wrest full control of the rubber used for his car business from a cartel based in the Netherlands' Asia colonies.

The plantation, including the imported, prefabricated town of Fordlandia, was a flop. "Within a couple of years, [the rubber trees] all got the blight and were all wiped out," Vulinec said. "The whole project went bankrupt."

Ford's problem was that he planted all the rubber trees right next to each other. Rubber plantations created with Brazilian rubber-tree seeds took root and flourished in Malaysia, where there is no blight. But rubber trees only grow in Brazil when separated.

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