How is rainforest biodiversity generated, maintained and eroded?
The ECL strives to understand the key mechanisms that structure food webs. Disturbances can alter important regulating mechanisms that keep ecosystems in a dynamic equilibrium. Many places, the loss of one species such an apex predator can cause food webs to disassemble and ecosystems to collapse. For example, in some places, the poaching of wolves or tigers eliminates predation control of herbivore populations and triggers cascading impacts on the vegetation. In other locations, the loss of predators produces negligible cascading impacts.
The ECL wants to understand why.
Basic research on how food webs are governed has applied uses in conservation. For protected areas and parks to maintain high diversity over the long term, we must identify and protect the key mechanism structuring those ecosystems. Thus, while the ECL focuses on conducting fundamental research, our findings will play a crucial role in maintaining healthy plant and animal communities in the coming decades.
Apex predators are crucial to regulating the populations of large herbivores in some ecosystems. This tiger was photographed as part of our work in Sumatra, which experienced the highest deforestation rates globally from 2000-2015. Area-demanding apex predators are now at severe risk of extinction. Our estimates of this critically endangered species population (618 tigers) and home range (200-400 km2) now guide Indonesia’s conservation program (Luskin et al. 2017a).
Our follow up work examines tigers' importance for maintaining healthy food webs. We do this by comparing the food web structure in a dozen forests in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, some which have lost tigers.