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Press Releases

Downsizing in animal communities leads to functional decay in tropical forests

Frankfurt am Main/ Germany, 05/31/2017. A new study led by researchers of the University of Oviedo in collaboration with scientists of the University of Freiburg and the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt points to the urgent need of conserving large animal species to halt the loss of ecosystem functioning. According to the researchers, the ecosystem consequences of downsizing in animal communities are already effective in tropical forests today. The study is published in "Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B".

“If we seek to avoid - and halt - the decay of ecosystem functions, especially in the tropics, we urgently need targeted conservation measures for large animal species. Otherwise the lush diversity of tropical forests, as we know it, could soon be a shadow from the past." says Isabel Donoso, researcher at the University of Oviedo in Spain. Her appeal concludes a study in which she and her colleagues demonstrate the disproportionate negative effect that the extinction of large animal species has on the dynamics of tropical forests with a simulation model.

It revealed that the selective loss of large animals, due to anthropogenic pressure, will lead to impoverished forests that are dominated by small-seeded plant species. Although previous work has introduced this idea, this new study allows unraveling the two main mechanisms that underlie the consequences of defaunation, which primarily results in the loss of large animal species.

On the one hand, animal size determines which plants and animals can interact in nature. On the other hand, seed size influences the survival of seeds and seedlings after being dispersed by animals. The authors now show that the interaction between these two processes, plant-animal size matching and plant survival, cause a severe and systematic decay in forest regeneration, even if only few large animal species go extinct.

This is based on simulating the functioning of tropical forests that are originally characterized by species-rich animal and plant communities. To make their simulation as realistic as possible, the researchers based their model on data of plant and animal communities that had been collected in the Manú Biosphere Reserve in the Andes of southeast Peru by Senckenberg researchers.


PD Dr. Matthias Schleuning
Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre
Phone +49 (0)69- 7542 1892

Sabine Wendler
Press officer
Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre
Phone +49 (0)69- 7542 1818


Donoso I, Schleuning M, García D & Fründ J. (2017): Defaunation effects on seedling recruitment depend on species size matching and size-trade-offs in seed dispersal networks. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2664

To study and understand nature with its limitless diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – this has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s main tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Nature Research Society is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt am Main is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de

200 years of Senckenberg! 2017 marks Senckenberg’s anniversary year. For 200 years, the society, which was founded in 1817, has dedicated itself to nature research with curiosity, passion and involvement. Senckenberg will celebrate its 200-year success story with a colorful program consisting of numerous events, specially designed exhibitions and a grand museum party in the fall. Of course, the program also involves the presentation of current research and future projects. Additional information can be found at: www.200jahresenckenberg.