Research Article

A continent-wide assessment of the form and intensity of large mammal herbivory in Africa

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Science  27 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6264, pp. 1056-1061
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac7978

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How herbivores affect ecosystems

Abiotic forces, such as fire and water, have powerful effects on ecosystem structure and function. Animals that eat plants also have strong effects in natural systems, but their impacts are harder to assess. Hempson et al. measured how herbivores affect vegetation across Africa (see the Perspective by Gill). Four distinct herbivory regimes emerge from the analysis, characterized by forest antelopes, arid-region gazelles, high-diversity savannah fauna, and bulk feeders (such as elephants), which have had equivalent impact to those of fire and water on shaping ecosystems.

Science, this issue p. 1056; see also p. 1036

Abstract

Megafaunal extinctions and a lack of suitable remote sensing technology impede our understanding of both the ecological legacy and current impacts of large mammal herbivores in the Earth system. To address this, we reconstructed the form and intensity of herbivory pressure across sub-Saharan Africa ~1000 years ago. Specifically, we modeled and mapped species-level biomass for 92 large mammal herbivores using census data, species distributions, and environmental covariates. Trait-based classifications of these species into herbivore functional types, and analyses of their biomass surfaces, reveal four ecologically distinct continental-scale herbivory regimes, characterized by internally similar forms and intensities of herbivory pressure. Associations between herbivory regimes, fire prevalence, soil nutrient status, and rainfall provide important insights into African ecology and pave the way for integrating herbivores into global-scale studies.

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