How Poop Turns Into Forests | Ludmila Rattis | TED

25,661 views ・ 2024-02-28

TED


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00:08
When I was a child growing up in Brazil,
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I would play by stepping on cow's poop barefoot
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just to feel the warm and soft sensation of the digested organic matter
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going through my toes.
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(Laughter)
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But for my family, animal waste had another level of importance.
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My grandma would sell the manure and split the money with my mom.
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That was my mom's only income as a housewife,
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raising her four children,
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while my father worked in our farm.
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That's my grandma.
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On that very farm, my grandpa had a stroke of genius.
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Instead of ordinary fences,
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he carved out some ditches surrounded by trees,
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creating forest corridors for animals to cross.
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It was like Mother Nature's highway system,
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allowing critters to commute from one leafy paradise to another.
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My mom never wanted me to rely on animal waste for a living.
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My grandpa did not know he was increasing the landscape connectivity
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for animals to cross,
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but they were both working on nature-based solutions
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before the term became trendy.
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Two aspects of ecosystem restoration:
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investing in soil fertility
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and increasing the landscape connectivity.
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Bringing back the nutrients,
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bringing back the forests:
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both with positive consequences for the entire system.
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I believe a healthy ecosystem should stand behind every plate of food.
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So today, as a scientist,
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my role is to understand how to produce food
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while we let animals working in ecosystem resilience in a changing world.
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So I started where those changes are happening,
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in the tropics, in Brazil,
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in the Amazonia.
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And it's in there, in the wilds of the tropical forests,
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the tropical South America,
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that beholds the star of our tale:
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the lowland tapir.
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Those pig-like creatures grace the landscape from the Amazonia
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to the Pantanal.
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Aren't they cute?
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(Audience murmuring)
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When it comes to big animals,
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they tend to eat a lot of low-energy food like leaves.
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But tapirs are different.
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Up to 36 percent of their diet is based on fruit,
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and they have a very long digestive system.
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And they love to go for a walk.
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So let's picture that.
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They go for a walk.
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They find fruits along the way,
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they eat them while they process.
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And they keep walking in degraded areas,
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and eventually they poop.
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And when they poop, they help to spread the seeds
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in the fruits they love to eat.
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Tapirs are big, tapirs are tough,
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and tapirs poop ... a lot.
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And how do I know that?
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Because at the research station that I work on,
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at the Southeast Amazonia,
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among many other things, we wash poop.
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(Laughter)
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We walk in the forest looking for their latrines,
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and latrines are something like a toilet
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but without the large bowl, just a lot of poop together.
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We find them, collect, wash,
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count and identify as many seeds as possible.
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In one dung, we find on average 733 seeds
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belonging to up to 24 different species.
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We can see hundreds of seedlings emerging from one dung.
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And they can become trees, big trees.
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And because large-seeded trees tend to be deep rooted
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and drought resistant,
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those seed dispersers are helping to create a tree community
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that’s resilient and resistant.
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But sometimes, as you can see,
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tapirs poop too many seeds in one place,
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leading to competition among the seedlings.
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So other animals come in to help, luckily.
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Some of those animals [are] the dung beetle.
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Dung beetles help to disperse the seeds throughout the forest.
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There are two kinds of dung beetles dispersing seeds:
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rollers and tunnelers.
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Rollers roll the poop away from the source
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and bury it underground,
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while tunnelers bury the poop right by the source.
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When they bury the seeds,
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they revolve around the soil and may make it better for the seeds
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and [increase] the chances of them to grow into plants.
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These animals’ interactions can really reseed the forests,
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but we must preserve their habitats to increase their chances of survival.
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When people ask me if forests can regrow without our help,
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I say we always have to help,
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even if it is just to get out of the way.
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But another, more active way to help
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is by leaving forest patches in the landscape.
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Forest patches are something like VIP lounges
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for plants and animals,
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where critters can hop, skip and jump
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from one leafy hot spot to another.
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And when they do that,
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they act like real gardeners, bringing back the forests.
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And they need to do that
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because the future of those forests is at stake.
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As scientists, we are concerned with deforestation and degradation.
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Deforestation takes away those forests
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those animals are helping to plant for thousands of years.
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Degradation makes those forests less healthy,
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harboring fewer animals.
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I truly believe that those animals are trying to bring back the spring,
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despite all the efforts to stop them.
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So let me throw you some questions.
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How powerful is the tapirs’ poop?
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How far can they travel?
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How charming do my friends,
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totally unconcerned with social conventions,
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need to be in order to revert the tipping point
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we are possibly about to reach?
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My colleagues and I at the Woodwell Climate Research Center
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and at the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia
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are trying to answer those questions,
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but we already know some of the answers.
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We know that the resilience of those ecosystems
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is on the diversity of plants and animals living there.
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Our future is intertwined with the future of those animals,
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and it depends on how good a job we do trying to protect them.
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And people, I’m not afraid to say: our future lies in poop.
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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