Everyone knows palm oil plantations are wreaking havoc in rainforests all over the world. Now rubber plantations have come under equal scrutiny, and it’s no surprise to see they bring about a ‘sharp decline’ in the overall biodiversity of an area.
Rubber – The fastest-growing agroecosystem in Asia
A team at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University have been studying rubber plantations, the most rapidly spreading agroecosystem in Southeast Asia, and it looks like they’ll have a profound impact on biodiversity through disrupting the natural landscape.
The research centred on ants in Xishuangbanna, China, in a forest converted to a rubber plantation, and used the creatures to establish the effects of the change on other invertebrates. The results revealed a dramatic drop in the overall biodiversity of ants in the plantation.
Ants are a good surrogate for other invertebrates, as well as being functionally vital, doing a wide variety of tasks in the forest ecosystem including helping with decomposition and dispersing seeds. And because ants are everywhere, they’re relatively easy to study.
Watching a rubber plantation do its evil work
The team collected 186 different ant species at 11 sites on a rubber plantation in China, and 24 sites from the surrounding forest. They sorted the ants by species and measured how they interacted with their home ecosystem. Stuff like body size, eye dimensions and leg length were all noted, as well as the creatures’ phylogenetic diversity – in other words how closely related they were to each other. And they looked at biodiversity in different dimensions, to check what was happening as the forest was converted to grow rubber.
Sadly they realised that there was a striking decrease in ant biodiversity, with fewer different species and less variety in species function after the natural forest was disrupted. And the decrease was bigger than anyone expected. Worse still, the data revealed only a small subsection of the forest species could survive in the rubber plantation, which acts very like an ecological filter.
Decimating the ant population is bad news for rainforests
Combine the ant species loss with a reduction in their functional diversity and the news isn’t looking good for countless other species who depend on the ants, and the complex natural processes that maintain the delicate ecosystem.
Will rubber become the new palm oil?
With more and more rubber plantations springing up, it looks like rubber might become the next palm oil, something else to avoid, protest against and raise awareness about