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Forest biodiversity benefits from large herbivores like elephants and moose

An intriguing study utilizing global satellite data has brought new insights into the role of the world’s largest herbivores, or megafauna, in shaping the biodiversity of protected areas.

This study uncovers the significant, yet often overlooked, influence of large herbivores on the variety and distribution of tree cover across the globe. The research was led by an international team, including experts from Lund University.

Large herbivores as ecosystem engineers

The team’s findings shed light on the relationship between large herbivores and the landscapes they inhabit. Contrary to the commonly held belief that dense forests are the richest in biodiversity, the study by Lanhui Wang and colleagues demonstrates that areas frequented by species such as elephants, bison, and moose actually exhibit a more diverse tree cover.

“Large herbivores are commonly seen as competitors for space and resources in protected areas,” explains Lanhui Wang, a researcher at Lund University. “However, our research indicates that these animals are pivotal in creating a mosaic of habitats that supports a wide array of other species.”

Browsers and mixed-feeders

The study specifically highlights the role of browsers and mixed-feeders in maintaining a varied tree cover. These animals, which include some of the largest species on the planet, contribute to biodiversity through their dietary habits. More specifically, they promote the growth of a range of different plant species.

Jens-Christian Svenning, the study’s senior author from Aarhus University, clarifies the geographical scope of this phenomenon. Svenning said, “Our analysis shows that in non-extreme climates, where neither desert nor ice predominates, the presence of large herbivores is strongly associated with a patchy but rich tree landscape.”

Rethinking ecosystem restoration

The conclusions drawn from this study have significant implications for conservation strategies worldwide. “The role of large herbivores goes beyond just being a charismatic facet of our natural heritage,” asserts Wang. “They are active agents in landscape formation, influencing both the physical structure and biological diversity of ecosystems.”

This research points to the necessity of incorporating megafauna into current and future ecosystem restoration efforts, which have been undervalued in the planning of sustainable land management thus far.

Ecosystem management strategies

As global initiatives ramp up efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss, the study advocates for a more sophisticated discussion about ecosystem management. Understanding the ecological impact of megafauna, namely large herbivores, is now seen as critical in these conversations.

“At a time when the preservation of biodiversity is more urgent than ever, recognizing the role of these large herbivores in ecosystem dynamics is a vital step in devising effective conservation strategies,” says Wang.

Needed: Wild-living large herbivores

The UN has recognized the importance of ecosystem restoration by designating the 2020s as a dedicated decade for this purpose. With 115 countries committed to restoring a substantial area of nature, the study underscores the necessity for a resurgence of wild-living large herbivores.

“Our analysis suggests that if we are to meet the UN’s ambitious targets for ecosystem restoration, we cannot ignore the integral role played by large herbivores,” Wang concludes.

In light of these findings, the international research team calls for a paradigm shift in how we view and manage protected areas. The presence of large herbivores is not only essential for the natural beauty and diversity of these ecosystems, it is also crucial for their function and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.

The full study has been recently published in the prestigious One Earth journal.

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