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Researchers discover birds protect trees in neotropics by eating insects

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- High in the canopy of a Neotropical Panamanian forest, researchers have discovered that birds, especially native ones during the rainy season, protect trees by reducing the numbers of leaf-eating insects.

The finding -- being published this week on the Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- was a mild surprise, said researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That birds help crops and low-lying plants in temperate forests by devouring insects had been known. However, many scientists had theorized that the rich diversity of life in tropical forests would diffuse any significant contributions by birds.

Worldwide, but especially in Neotropical forests, bird populations are declining amid forest fragmentation as areas are cleared for ranching, farming or housing. The yearlong research project, the first to study bird-arthropod interactions in a Neotropical forest canopy, was carried out by Sunshine A. Van Bael, a doctoral student in animal biology at Illinois and a research fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

"We found that birds were indirectly defending trees by consuming their herbivore pests," said Van Bael, who studied bird activity on 44 canopy branches of three tree species on 18 individual trees and 38 saplings (younger ones under the canopy).

During the rainy season (May to December), the number of chewing arthropods is 90 percent higher than in the dry season. Native tanagers, including the blue-gray, crimson-backed, plain-colored and white-shouldered, and native vireos, particularly the lesser greenlet, dined extensively on caterpillars easily visible on the tops of leaves.

The 31 species of birds observed -- while preferring smooth to spiny caterpillars -- ate enough to drastically reduce damage to leaves in comparison to damage done to leaves in specially built exclosures where access by birds was limited.

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Contact: Jim Barlow
jebarlow@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
23-Jun-2003


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