Article image

Large herbivore extinctions drastically affect forest ecosystems

In nature, large herbivores like tapirs, deer, and peccaries play the role of powerful conductors. Their extinction, however, threatens to bring silence to the vibrant forest orchestra.

An insightful new study reveals the hidden impact of these mighty creatures’ disappearance on plant-pathogen interactions, hinting at cascading consequences for tropical biodiversity.

Herbivores extinction

When large herbivores vanish due to human activities like hunting or habitat loss, the delicate balance of the ecosystem is disrupted. Herbivores play a crucial role in regulating plant populations. They consume a variety of plants, preventing any single species from gaining a competitive edge. This natural pruning helps maintain a diverse mix of plants within an ecosystem.

Upon herbivore extinction, certain fast-growing or less palatable plant species can outcompete others. Without the grazing pressure, these species proliferate, leading to a less diverse plant community. This simplification alters the resources and habitat available to other organisms that rely on a broader range of plants.

Many pathogens are host-specific, meaning they infect only a limited range of plant species. In a simplified plant community, these pathogens face difficulty finding suitable hosts to infect and reproduce. As a result, their populations can decline, reducing the overall damage they cause to the plant community.

The disruption caused by herbivore loss doesn’t end with pathogens. Insects, birds, and other organisms that depend on a diverse plant community will also be affected. Lower pathogen loads, which might seem like a good thing, can harm the long-term resilience of plant populations, making them more vulnerable to future outbreaks when suitable pathogens do re-emerge

Large herbivores influence pathogen dynamics

There are several ways in which large herbivores indirectly influence plant-pathogen interactions:

Dilution effect

When a wide variety of plant species exist within an ecosystem, it becomes like a maze for specialized pathogens. Without a dense concentration of their preferred host plant, these pathogens struggle to find suitable targets to infect and spread their disease.

Diverse plant communities essentially dilute the concentration of the pathogen’s preferred host, decreasing the chances of a successful epidemic.

Dispersal disruption

Large herbivores wander widely throughout a forest. As they feed and move, they unwittingly transport both plant seeds and pathogens, potentially over long distances.

When large herbivores are absent, the pathogens and their host plants are less likely to spread over wide areas. Essentially, the problem becomes more isolated, reducing the overall impact on the forest.

Evolutionary impacts

Plants constantly evolve defense mechanisms against pathogens. Reduced exposure to a variety of pathogens could lead to a decrease in these defense strategies. Over long periods, this could leave plant populations more vulnerable to future attacks.

Without frequent interactions with pathogens, plants may no longer prioritize investing resources in maintaining strong immune responses. This could have significant consequences for the health of the entire forest if a new or resurgent pathogen emerges.

Broader consequences of herbivores extinction

Research from Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest, a biodiversity hotspot, provides compelling evidence of this disruption. Scientists observed significantly reduced pathogen damage in areas where large herbivores were absent.

“A decline in plant-pathogen interactions may have evolutionary consequences for both,” said Carine Emer, lead author of the study.

Moreover, the ramifications of this phenomenon extend beyond individual plants. Plant-pathogen relationships are key drivers of biodiversity. By disrupting this balance, defaunation could inadvertently alter forest compositions.

Additionally, weakened plant populations could be more susceptible to pest outbreaks or novel diseases, potentially destabilizing entire forest ecosystems.

Conservation strategies to alter herbivore extinction

“Our study produced innovative results and for that very reason deserves to be extended to other areas of Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil, and to other tropical forests. In any event, it evidenced an additional problem that can be caused by the extinction of large mammals,” Emer said.

These findings call for a more holistic approach to conservation. Beyond protecting individual species, it’s vital to consider the interconnected web of interactions within an ecosystem.

Restoring populations of large herbivores may not only benefit these species directly but could also cascade through the system, helping to maintain a healthy, resilient forest environment.

The study is published in the journal Journal of Ecology.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day