Publication update 5: Asian tapirs are no elephants…

Captive tapir

…especially when it comes to seed dispersal. Back in March, we highlighted two publications by Ahimsa which look at the role megafauna such as elephants play in shaping our forests. This time, Ahimsa’s looking at a slightly smaller – though still large – herbivore: the Asian Tapir. We’ve already mentioned before how Reuben and Sheema have been involved in a tapir population study. Ahimsa, on the other hand, has been specifically investigating tapir diet and feeding behaviour to find out if they play a role similar to that of elephants. After all, studies in South and Central America have suggested that New World tapirs might be important seed dispersers over there. But, that’s in a world where there are no elephants. So the question Ahimsa is asking is: If elephants disappear, could tapirs step in to fill their big shoes?

It’s an interesting question, and the first time such a feeding experiment has been conducted for tapirs on this side of the world. How do you conduct such a feeding experiment? Well, by getting tapirs to eat lots and lots of different foods, and then examining lots and lots of tapir poo! As you can imagine, it’s easier to try this out with captive tapirs in a zoo, but hopefully in the future this can be developed and expanded further to look at wild tapirs in their natural habitat.

Tapir feeding experiment
Ahimsa makes sure the tapir finishes all its lunch before it’s allowed to leave the dining table

The conclusion of the study is that tapirs are not effective dispersers for large seeds, which either died in tapir guts or failed to germinate afterwards. However, the same plant species did germinate relatively well when consumed by elephants (Campos-Arceiz et al. 2008, Larrinaga et al. unpublished), which shows that tapirs are in a very different functional group when it comes to seed dispersal. With rhinos gone from most of Asian forests and elephants rapidly declining, Ahimsa and his co-authors expect that many large-seeded plants will face severe dispersal limitation problems.

Durian seedling used as a control. No seed larger than 1.4 cm germinated after being ingested by tapirs!

How did the tapir’s digestive system adversely affect large seeds from fruits such as durian, rambutan and chempedak? What were the germination rates for smaller seeds? What are some of the possible physiological reasons for tapirs not being reliable gardeners of forests? Click on the image of the article header below to discover how Ahimsa obtained the results of his research!

Campos-Arceiz et al. 2011

Incidentally, the latest results from the Kenyir Wildlife Corridor Project have shown that tapirs appear to be utilising one of the viaducts to some extent. But are these viaducts really useful wildlife crossing structures for mammals in general? Stay tuned for more of Rimba’s project updates!

Camera-trap photo from the Kenyir Wildlife Corridor Project


Campos-Arceiz A., Larrinaga A.R., Weerasinghe U.R., Takatsuki S., Pastorini J., Leimgruber P., Fernando P. and Santamaria L. 2008. Behavior rather than diet mediates seasonal differences in seed dispersal by Asian elephants. Ecology 89(10): 2684-2691.


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