HomePLANTS & ANIMALSECOLOGYClimate change and deforestation may drive tree-dwelling primates to the ground, large-scale...

Climate change and deforestation may drive tree-dwelling primates to the ground, large-scale study shows

Climate change and deforestation are driving these tree-dwelling animals to the ground, where they are at greater risk due to a lack of preferred food and shelter and may have more negative interactions with humans and domestic animals, according to a large-scale study of 47 species of monkeys and lemurs.

The study, which will be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on October 10th, was led by Timothy Eppley, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) and examined more than 150,000 hours of observation data on 15 lemur species and 32 monkey species at 68 sites across the Americas and Madagascar. This study was a remarkable global collaboration, with 118 co-authors from 124 distinct institutions.

“This study began with a discussion among colleagues about how we’d noticed certain populations of arboreal primates spending more time on the ground,” Dr. Eppley explained, “yet members of the same species may never descend to the ground at sites with relatively less disturbance.”

The authors calculated the impact of ecological drivers, such as potential human-induced pressures and/or species-specific traits, on arboreal primates’ level of terrestriality (time spent on the ground). According to the study, primates that eat less fruit and live in large social groups are more likely to descend to the ground. According to the authors, these characteristics may act as a “pre-adaptation” to terrestriality. Furthermore, primates in hotter environments with less canopy cover were more likely to adapt to these changes by increasing their ground use.

Many of these species are already burdened by the fact that they live in warmer, fragmented, and heavily disturbed environments with fewer available dietary resources. As climate change worsens and arboreal habitats dwindle, the study suggests that primates that consume a more diverse diet and live in larger groups may be able to adapt more easily to a terrestrial lifestyle.

“It’s possible that spending more time on the ground will protect some primates from the effects of forest degradation and climate change; however, for the less adaptable species, quick and effective conservation strategies will be required to ensure their survival,” Eppley said.

The study also discovered that primate populations living near human infrastructure are less likely to descend to the ground. According to Luca Santini, Ph.D., of Sapienza University of Rome, one of the study’s two senior authors, “this finding may suggest that human presence, which is often a threat to primates, may interfere with the species’ natural adaptability to global change.”

The transition from an arboreal to a terrestrial lifestyle has previously occurred in primate evolution, but today’s rapid changes pose a serious threat.

“Though similar ecological conditions and species traits may have influenced previous evolutionary shifts of arboreal primates, including hominins, to ground living,” said Giuseppe Donati, Ph. D., of Oxford Brookes University, one of the study’s senior authors.

SDZWA Chief Conservation and Wildlife Health Officer Nadine Lamberski, who was not involved in the study, remarked on the impressive scope of this collaborative scientific initiative.

“It takes an extraordinary effort to bring together 118 authors and review such large amounts of data. It is also a fantastic example of the insights and progress that can be made when conservation is examined on a global scale “Lamberski said.


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