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Amazon animals will suffer as the rainforest turns into savanna

A new study from UC Davis reveals that animals in the Brazilian Amazon are threatened by climate change and the gradual transition of the tropical rainforest into savanna, also known as savannization. 

“Climate change will affect species persistence and distribution, particularly in high-diversity ecosystems like the Amazon. Studies predict that as temperature and deforestation increase and precipitation patterns change in the Amazon, areas along its southern and eastern borders will suffer large-scale savannization, the conversion of tropical forest to degraded savannah-like vegetation,” wrote the study authors. 

“Here, we aim to identify the terrestrial mammal species potentially most at risk from savannization by studying their use of natural forest and savannah habitats within four protected areas, using camera-trap surveys and community occupancy models.”

The experts determined that most land-based mammals in the Brazilian Amazon, from jaguars to capybara, will struggle for survival once they lose their forest habitat. In addition, the researchers found that even animals that use both forest and savanna habitats – like pumas – are vulnerable to savannization.

“We’re losing Amazon forest as we speak,” said study lead author Daniel Rocha. “The Amazon’s biodiversity is very susceptible to climate change effects. It’s not just local; it’s a global phenomenon. We cannot stop this just by law enforcement, for example. These species are more susceptible than we realized, and even protected areas can’t protect them as much as we thought.”

While monkeys and other animals that live in trees will certainly be impacted by savannization, the UC Davis team wanted to investigate how this transition will affect land-based mammals.

The experts used camera traps to conduct surveys of 31 land-based mammal species in the southern Brazilian Amazon, which consists of both rainforest and savanna. Based on community occupancy models, the analysis revealed that only a few species preferred the savanna habitat.

Rocha pointed out that the savanna used in the modeling study is pristine – not degraded – so the negative effects of savannization among animals will likely be even stronger.

“Unfortunately, there are more losers than winners,” said Rocha, who is currently an assistant professor at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma. “Most Amazon species, when they can choose between good forests and good savanna, they choose the forest. That’s true even for species considered ‘generalists,’ which use both habitats.  As we lose forests, they suffer, too.”

The study is published in the journal Animal Conservation.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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