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The ecological role of the Bonobo : seed dispersal service in Congo forests

Abstract : Bonobos (Pan paniscus) are threatened with extinction. They are the largest primates, and the only apes (except human), of the southern bank of the Congo Basin. Along with chimpanzees, they are our closest living relatives and are studied by anthropologists to include/understand our hominid origins; but what about their functional role in the forest? Would their disappearance have serious consequences for forest ecology? Answering this question is the aim of this new project, with several years of observations of a free-ranging habituated group of bonobos on the LuiKotale research station (DR Congo). In this tropical rainforest, the very great majority of plants need animals to reproduce and disperse their seeds. Bonobos are the largest frugivorous animals in this region, after elephants. During its life, each bonobo will ingest and disperse nine tons of seeds, from more than 91 species of lianas, grass, trees and shrubs. These seeds will travel 24 hours in the bonobo digestive tract, which will transfer them over several kilometers (mean 1.3 km; max: 4.5 km), far from their parents, where they will be deposited intact in their feces. These dispersed seeds remain viable, germinate better and more quickly than unpassed seeds. For those seeds, diplochory with dung-beetles (Scarabaeidae) imrpoves post-dispersal survival. Certain plants such as Dialium may even be dependent on bonobos to activate the germination of their seeds, characterized by tegumentary dormancy. The first parameters of the effectiveness of seed dispersal by bonobos are present. Behavior of the bonobo could affect the population structure of plants whose seeds they disperse. The majority of these zoochorous plants cannot recruit without dispersal and the homogeneous spatial structure of the trees suggests a direct link with their dispersal agent. Few species could replace bonobos in terms of seed dispersal services, just as bonobos could not replace elephants. There is little functional redundancy between frugivorous mammals of the Congo, which face severe human hunting pressures and local exctinction. The defaunation of the forests, leading to the empty forest syndrome, is critical in conservation biology, as will be illustrated here. The disappearance of the bonobos, which disperse seeds of 65% of the tree species in these forests, or 11.6 million individual seeds during the life of each bonobo, will have consequences for the conservation of the Congo rainforest
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David Beaune. The ecological role of the Bonobo : seed dispersal service in Congo forests. Agricultural sciences. Université de Bourgogne, 2012. English. ⟨NNT : 2012DIJOS096⟩. ⟨tel-00932505⟩

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