Fruit-Eating Birds Discovered Crucial To Rainforest Survival

New Study Reveals That African Hornbills Wander Widely Through The Rainforest, Dispersing Seeds And Playing A Major, Unsuspected Role In Forest Regeneration

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., Aug. 6, 1998 -- The fate of tropical rainforests in Western and Central Africa depends in large part on the survival of magnificent fruit-loving birds known as hornbills, new research has revealed.

In a three-year study in a remote Cameroon rain forest, biologists at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Davis have discovered that the toucan-like birds disperse seeds of nearly a fourth of the tropical trees, flying 100 miles or more through the forest in search of ripening fruit. Until this study, the birds were thought to be sedentary, residing throughout the year in patches of rainforest.

As other important seed dispersers such as elephants and primates continue to decline in the region due to habitat destruction and hunting, hornbills become even more important for rain forest regrowth and survival.

"The survival of the rainforest appears to rely to a large degree on the hornbills' ability to disperse seeds of so many species," said Thomas Smith, associate professor of biology at San Francisco State University and co-author of two scientific papers just published on the Cameroon study. "If we have any hope of protecting rainforests we need to protect not just the pattern of biodiversity but also the processes that create it. Our work suggests that by dispersing seeds, these magnificent birds are vital agents of biodiversity.

"The birds' surprisingly large range suggests that their own survival depends on preserving large expanses of rain forest intact," added Smith, who also holds a post as associate professor at the Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis.

The Cameroon study found that nearly all the seeds dispersed by the hornbills germinate s

Contact: Wallace Ravven
(415) 338-6747
San Francisco State University

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