Overhunting is a leading contemporary driver of tropical forest wildlife loss. The absence or extremely low densities of large-bodied vertebrates disrupts plant-animal mutualisms and consequently degrades key ecosystem services. Understanding patterns of defaunation is therefore crucial given that most tropical forests worldwide are now “half-empty”. Here we investigate changes in vertebrate community composition and size structure along a gradient of marked anthropogenic hunting pressure in the Médio Juruá region of western Brazilian Amazonia. Using a novel camera trapping grid design deployed both in the understorey and the forest canopy, we estimated the aggregate biomass of several functional groups of terrestrial and arboreal species at 28 sites along the hunting gradient. Generalized linear models (GLMs) identified hunting pressure as the most important driver of aggregate biomass for game, terrestrial, and arboreal species, as well as nocturnal rodents, frugivores, and granivores. Local hunting pressure affected vertebrate community structure as shown by both GLM and ordination analyses. The size structure of vertebrate fauna changed in heavily hunted areas due to population declines in large-bodied species and apparent compensatory increases in nocturnal rodents. Our study shows markedly altered vertebrate community structure even in remote but heavily settled areas of continuous primary forest. Depletion of frugivore and granivore populations, and concomitant density-compensation by seed predators, likely affect forest regeneration in persistently overhunted tropical forests. These findings contribute to a better understanding of how cascading effects induced by historical defaunation operate, informing wildlife management policy in tropical peri-urban, rural and wilderness areas.
- Camera trapping
- Density compensation