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Birds and bats sow tropical seeds

Restoring the rich diversity of trees that once characterized expansive tracts of tropical rainforest gets a helping hand from native birds and bats. Just how big a role these winged gardeners play is a question ecologists from the University of Illinois at Chicago and several Latin American universities are about to find out by setting up essentially a living laboratory in Mexico's gulf coast state of Veracruz.

Henry Howe, a noted authority in restoration ecology and a professor of biological sciences at UIC, will lead the multi-year test, funded initially by a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Co-investigators include Christina Martinez-Garza, a biologist on the faculty of the Autonomous University of Morelos in Mexico, and a former doctoral student of Howe's at UIC; Martin Ricker, director of the biological station in Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz and a former UIC student; and Rodolfo Dirzo, the Bing Professor in environment science at Stanford University.

The group will work closely with UNAM, the Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico, which owns and runs the Veracruz biological station.

"The point of the project is to restore diversity to agricultural landscapes," said Howe. "We'll test the proposition that immigration of trees into this tropical landscape, the remnants and forest fragments that still exist in it is dispersal-limited. That is, the seeds don't get there."

Howe said most tropical areas re-vegetate naturally after being abandoned, or by replanting a limited number of fast-growing trees that rely on the wind for seed dispersal. Replanting often leads to monocultures that support only a limited variety of animal species. Poor lands are more likely to be abandoned. Better land parcels get replanted.

But if nature had her way, more than 90 percent of replanted species would be dispersed by birds, bats and primates. That's less and less the case today in tropical areas worldwide, leading to
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Contact: Paul Francuch
francuch@uic.edu
312-996-3457
University of Illinois at Chicago
13-Sep-2005


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