In Recognition of World Environment Day: The Importance of the monito del monte (little monkey of the bush) for a Forest’s Equilibrium

Scientists in Bosque Pehuén reveal discoveries about this small marsupial native to our country; its role in the dispersion of seeds, control of pests and in the care of biodiversity of temperate rainforests.

The monito del monte (little monkey of the bush) is considered a living fossil for being the oldest of all marsupials, and the only species remaining of the Microbiotheria (marsupials indigenous to Australia) order. It resides in the forests of southern Chile and Argentina and is able to climb and live in areas of native forest. It is presently classified as a near-threatened species due to the destruction of its habitat caused by the proximity of forest plantations and the growth of agriculture in the region.

The monito del monte, whose scientific name is Dromiciops gliroides, is a marsupial species native to our country, that lives between the Maule and Aysén regions. It is very small in size, roughly 19 to 25 centimeters, and reaches maturity at two years of age. Females have between 2 and 4 offspring, which are born not fully developed. As a result, newborns reside in the marsupial pouch for approximately 60 days. After leaving the pouch, they continue for another month under the protective watch of their mother. Since 2014, the forest research team of the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia, together with Fundación Mar Adentro, has been observing the biological activity in the canopy  in Bosque Pehuén’s forest, a reserve located in the Araucanía Andean region. Through this research, a comprehensive archive of species and biodiversity has been created.

Bosque Pehuén

In 2017, Iván Díaz, researcher from the Universidad Austral, in collaboration with  Fundación Mar Adentro, completed a study of the monito del monte, published in the scientific magazine Ecosphere as “Confirmation of arboreal habits in Dromiciops gliroides: a key role in Chilean Temperate Rainforests.Research on the behavior of the monito del monte had not previously been carried out. It revealed important findings on the behavioral and spatial patterns of this small marsupial.

Ascent to the trees for study in the Pehuén forest. Photo by Felipe González.

The researchers of the Universidad Austral discovered in Bosque Pehuén that the monito del monte usually resides in the canopy (treetops). As mentioned in the study, this animal’s role as intermediary of the forest is much more relevant than initially thought: it is an important distributor of seeds to various species of plants and epiphytes (at least 22 species), and also aids in the control of pests as it feeds on different insects. In this way, the tree habits of the monito del monte are essential for the ecosystems of the temperate rainforest.

Before starting their research, the scientists wanted to know with what frequency the monito del monte utilized the forest canopy. To carry out their study, they installed cameras at 26-28 meters high on six oaks and coihue trees, each more than 200 years old.

The trap cameras were installed between January and April of 2017, during the Chilean summer and fall. During this time, 230 photos of the monito del monte were recorded among the canopies of the six trees.

The images also revealed nests of this marsupial at 6 to 10 meters from the ground. Additionally, the final results show the important ecological role of this animal, one of the most common arboreal mammals and perhaps the only living among the treetops of the South American temperate forest. Fundación Mar Adentro together with Iván Díaz continue studying the monito del monte in the Pehuén forest. They believe that this small animal could be more important for the temperate forest ecosystem than initially understood, having a profound impact on biodiversity. Thus, reducing its population could significantly affect various associated species.

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