Role of the western lowland gorilla ( Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in seed dispersal in tropical forests and implications of its decline. Biotechnol. Agron. Soc. Environ. 17(3), 517-526
Patterns of seed dispersal significantly affect plant demography, dynamics and succession. In the tropics, the majority of tree species bear fruits that are adapted to animal-mediated dispersal. Amongst seed dispersers, the contribution of primates is widely recognized by ecologists as incomparable. However, in lowland Afrotropical forests, the specific role of the largest primate species, the western lowland gorilla ( Gorilla gorilla gorilla Savage and Wyman, 1847), has been overlooked. This is of particular relevance as this species seems to fulfill important criteria for effective dispersal, both quantitatively and qualitatively. One trait makes it potentially unique as seed disperser; the regular deposition of seeds in open canopy environments where light will not be a limiting factor for subsequent seedling growth and survival. The magnitude of which this particular trait contributes to forest dynamics remains unexplored though it could be potentially important. It might no longer be the case, however, as the western lowland gorilla is critically endangered. The loss of the ecological services provided by large-bodied seed dispersers may have considerable impacts on the forests. Through dispersal limitation, population dynamics of plants in forests devoid of large frugivores will be strongly impacted. In the long-term, this may lead to shifts in plant community structure, composition and to reduced tree diversity. Currently, forests of the Congo basin face increasing level of deforestation and degradation, which puts already the ecosystem integrity in jeopardy. The additional threat that represents frugivorous wildlife depletion is therefore of forest management concern.