The male long-wattled umbrellabird, with head feathers like Elvis's hair, woos females with his fluffy neck wattle, which dangles past his feet. He competes for mates with other males in gatherings called leks, where he'll unknowingly shape more than his sex life.
This endangered species lives only in the Chocó rain forests of Ecuador and Colombia, where it makes vital contributions to the forests' health.
How does this bizarre-looking bird do it? Essentially by cultivating clumps of trees, says ecologist Jordan Karubian, Latin America director of the Center for Tropical Research at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He's the first scientist to track the umbrellabirds in Ecuador with radio transmitters, documenting their behavior and seed-dispersing habits.
With support from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, Karubian has shown that "an animal's social behavior can dramatically affect seed dispersal, which in turn may have important consequences for forest ecology."
Karubian and his team discovered that the umbrellabirds sometimes swallow seeds in pristine forests and regurgitate them in damaged areas, allowing those lands to regenerate. They disperse large seeds that many smaller birds can't even swallow.
The umbrellabirds also regurgitate seeds they've brought from various locations at lek sites, a practice that appears to create the dense clumps of genetically diverse fruit trees they need for food, shelter, and reproduction. "They are farming for themselves, if we're being anthropocentric," says Karubian.
Humans have destroyed about 96 percent of Ecuador's species-rich Chocó, and the long-wattled umbrellabirds are key to maintaining the ecology of the rest. Still, they can't outpace the logging, oil palm production, and agricultural land clearing that threaten what's left of the Chocó.
Before the forest dwindles further, Karubian hopes to learn much more about the umbrellabird, including whether males share information about fruit hot spots. His team is training local residents both to continue this research and to use sustainable development strategies to protect the Chocó.
—Hayley Rutger for National Geographic magazine