Researchers identify the importance of remnants of native forests close to vineyards to maintain carnivore diversity in Central Chile

Carnivores are key to pest control and to limiting disease transmitted between animals and humans

Aug 20, 2020 | news

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The Mediterranean climate region in central Chile, which extends from the south of the Choapa River to the north of the Biobío River, harbours a high proportion of endemic species and a greater relative diversity of species than other regions of this country. However, forestry, farming and livestock activities, including wine production, have led to a marked change in land use, impacting biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services.

Despite this, research conducted by Camila García as part of her Master’s thesis in Agronomic and Environmental Sciences, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV) and led by Dr Juan Luis Celis based on data obtained from inventories made by the Wine, Climate Change and Biodiversity (VCCB) programme of the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, proposes that the presence of remnants of native forests immersed or surrounding vineyards, allows the conservation of carnivores, key species in ecosystems and that contribute to the biological control of some agricultural pests such as rodents and rabbits.

The publication, which is a contribution to the assessment of the abundance of carnivores in the agricultural area of Central Chile, addresses how carnivores – including güiña and colocolo cats, chilla and culpeo foxes, quique (ferret) and chingue (Patagonian skunk) – are threatened in human-intervened landscapes, not only by the degradation of their natural habitats as a result of land-use change for agricultural production, but also by hunting, domestic dogs and urban development. These factors influence that today the conservation of several species are threatened.

The study, which also included the participation of Gabriella Svensson, Camila Bravo, María I. Undurraga, Javiera Díaz-Forestier, Karina Godoy, Alexander Neaman, Olga Barbosa and Sebastián Abades, emphasises that carnivores are super predators that help to control parasitic transmission between animals and humans in addition to limiting the transmission of zoonotic diseases. A decline of carnivorous populations may cause changes in other species and problems with agricultural crops.

Juan Luis Celis, the lead researcher, professor at the Agronomy School, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso and research associate of the Wine, Climate Change and Biodiversity programme, explains the role of carnivores “because they are at the top of the food chain, they have high habitat requirements and are therefore the first affected when their habitat is degraded or disturbed.

These species are key to controlling some pests and they do so without affecting crops, for example, by feeding on rabbits or rodents, indirectly they help to reduce agricultural losses caused by these species and particularly in the case of rodents, they help to control Hantavirus. Given its high habitat requirements, their conservation allows the conservation of other species with fewer requirements; they are known as “umbrella” species.

The scientific paper “Remnants of native forests support carnivore diversity in vineyard landscapes of Central Chile” discusses the differences between specialist carnivores – that require specific habitats for their conservation, such as the güiña or colocolo cat – and the generalist species that are less restrictive and adapt to different landscape environments, such as foxes – in areas with remnants of sclerophyll forest immersed or surrounding vineyards in Central Chile.

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In the findings of this research, Celis emphasises that generalist and specialist species react differently to the landscape “since generalists can inhabit more intervened areas and with less presence of remnants of forests, and in the case of the güiña or colocolo cat, of which there were very few previous recordings of sightings in the coastal mountain range region, it was observed that these species are more affected by habitat degradation and fragmentation. There are similarities in both groups, i.e., their abundance is negatively affected by the presence of domestic dogs in the forest remnants,” the academic pointed out.

Karina Godoy, VCCB coordinator, who also participated in this study, comments that the appeal of this study is “that they were able to obtain relevant ecological information from private lands, which are not protected areas and where there is little research and where conservation actions can be carried out at the same time as production operations, such as the wine industry.”

Precisely, a key conclusion of this research concerns the benefits for the wine industry of maintaining natural habitats associated with native forest remnants, as this supports the conservation of biodiversity in production areas by benefiting wildlife populations and also by providing other ecosystem services such as pollination, pest control and water regulation in agricultural areas.

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“Vineyards may benefit from ecosystem services and contribute to biodiversity, particularly to the extent that wine producers and consumers increasingly value the environmental impact of these production areas” says Dr Celis.