Wild pigs are often maligned as ecosystem destroyers, but a University ofQueensland study has found they also cultivate biodiverse rainforests in theirnative habitats.

Dr Matthew Luskin has been researching the effect of native pigs in Malaysianrainforests and found their nests may be critical to maintaining diverse andbalanced tree communities.

“We’ve shown that wild pigs can support higher diversity ecosystems and arenot just nuisances and pests, thanks to a beneficial effect of their nestingpractices,” Dr Luskin said.

“Prior to giving birth, pigs build birthing nests made up of hundreds of treeseedlings, usually on flat, dry sites in the forest.

“As they build their nests, the pigs kill many of the dominant seedlings andinadvertently reduce the abundance of locally dominant tree species, butusually not rarer local species, supporting tree diversity.”

Dr Luskin said wild pigs ( Sus scrofa) descended from the same species ofdomestic pigs and both have generally been considered pests by farmers, landmanagers and conservationists.

“Their negative impacts on natural and cultivated ecosystems have been welldocumented – ranging from soil disturbances to attacking newborn livestock,”he said.

This is the first study to link animals to this key mechanism for maintaininghyper-diverse rainforests.

The researchers tagged more than 30,000 tree seedlings in a Malaysianrainforest and were able to examine how tree diversity changed in the areaswhere pigs nested after recovering more than 1800 of those tree tags frominside more than 200 pig birthing nests.

“You could consider pigs ‘accidental forest gardeners’ that prune commonseedlings and inadvertently maintain diversity,” Dr Luskin said.

“In many regions, there’s a focus on managing overabundant pig populations tolimit their negative environmental impacts.

“But our results suggest there may be some positives to maintaining pigs inthe ecosystem.”

Dr Luskin said that as the fieldwork was conducted in Malaysia where pigs arenative – the impacts of invasive pigs in Australia may not create similareffects.

“We’re currently in the process of designing new research to study the samepig processes here in Queensland,” he said.

“And we’ll also be comparing our initial Malaysian results with conditions ina nearby Malaysian forest that is heavily hunted and where many native pigshave been killed.

“It’s an intriguing insight, as pigs have become the most widespread largeanimal on earth, so documenting any new ecological impacts has massiverepercussions globally.”

The research is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B (DOI:10.1098/rspb.2021.0001).

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