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A bird in a tree for biodiversity

Fooling with Mother Nature by fragmenting long-established land parcels can have unanticipated and punishing consequences, leaving lasting damage to the environment.

A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (online early edition the week of Nov. 10) by two University of Illinois at Chicago biologists documents such harm caused to a tree native to Tanzania's East Usambara Mountains where habitat fragmentation has broken a mutual relationship with the birds that distribute the seed.

The findings may serve as a warning of more widespread environmental danger under similar circumstances.

UIC doctoral candidate Norbert Cordeiro and professor of biological sciences Henry Howe focused their study on the Leptonychia tree (Leptonychia usambarensis), called the "zonozono" locally in the Swahili language. The tree is endemic to the Eastern Arc biodiversity hotspot of Kenya and Tanzania.

Cordeiro, who is also a research associate with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, chose this critically threatened location to compare how the trees fared in larger continuous tracts of virgin forest with those still growing in smaller parcels fragmented by farming and old former colonial plantations.

The tree's survival depends largely on certain bird species to eat and disperse seed. But in the broken parcels with few trees left, the birds were rare or absent. Seed fell to the ground but didn't regenerate as well as in continuous forest tracts. The bird-tree dependency that evolved in this ancient forest, isolated from other rainforests for 10 million years, was broken by human development in just the past century, jeopardizing the Leptonychia's survival.

"It's been shown that land fragmentation has had impacts on animal species, but there's been little study to see if relationships between plants and animals are affected too," said Cordeiro. "We've shown here that's precisely the case. And if other
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Contact: Paul Francuch
francuch@uic.edu
312-996-3457
University of Illinois at Chicago
10-Nov-2003


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