In the study, the research team used large electric fences to exclude cattle, elephants, zebras and other herbivorous mammals from experimental plots on a ranch in central Kenya from May 2004 to December 2005. During that time, the scientists monitored changes in the populations of trees, beetles, lizards and other plant and animal species.
"All of the species studied increased in abundance in the absence of large plant-eating mammals," said lead author Robert Pringle, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford. These results are examples of what ecologists call cascading effects, he added.
Although elephants and zebras do not interact directly with insects, they share plants as a food source, Pringle noted. Previous studies have shown that when elephants and zebras are experimentally removed or hunted out, plant matter accumulates and insect populations increase.
"With an increase in insects comes an increase in the insects' predators, such as lizards," Pringle said. "Thus, the actions of a few dominant species ripple throughout the ecosystem."
The authors also found that the strength of the cascading effects varied considerably across the landscape, and that it was possible to predict where the effects would be weak or strong in terms of "primary productivity"-the transformation of solar energy into plant tissue during photosynthesis. Plants in areas of high primary productivity grow faster, making more energy available throughout the food chain. The study revealed that cascading effects are weaker in places where productivity is high, probably "because more productive plant communities absorb the impacts of herbivory and buffer the remainder of the community," the authors wrote.
"For years, ecologists debated whether cascading effects occurred in terrestrial environments, and even then, most studies centered around the activities of top carnivores, such as wolves," Pringle said. "While top predators are undeniably important to ecological function, this new study shows that large herbivores can also play critical roles."
Extinctions, past and present
The PNAS study is timely for several reasons, he added: "Large herbivorous mammals are declining throughout Africa and worldwide, and have already gone extinct in many places. Our results suggest that these declines are likely to have complicated, and often unanticipated, consequences for the entire ecosystem."
North America is one place where mammoths, giant sloths, camels and other large herbivores once were common. But most of these mega-fauna species were eliminated during the Pleistocene epoch that ended about 10,000 years ago, raising questions about how these extinctions affected ecological processes. According to the authors, the cascading effects demonstrated in the experiment may have been important "in the history and evolution of ecosystems that today are bereft of large herbivores, and that although many of these cascades went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene along with the large herbivores that caused them, their legacies may well remain."
In 2005, another team of scientists made headlines by advocating a program of "Pleistocene re-wilding"-introducing large mammals from Africa and elsewhere into North America to simulate the lost Pleistocene fauna. Pringle made clear that his team's results do not speak to the wisdom of re-wilding. Nevertheless, he said, the new study should serve as a reminder that "the ecology we observe today is a product of history," and that humans have long played a leading role in that history.
"Humanity faces a lot of important decisions about how to manage Earth's ecosystems in the next few decades," he said. "By studying the ecology of places like Africa, where large mammals still exist, we can get glimpses of how life used to be organized in places like Europe and North America, and those inferences help explain phenomena that would otherwise seem strange. Snapshots of ecological history, even if from another continent, can help guide us to more robust conclusions about today's ecosystems and their conservation management."
Mark Shwartz | EurekAlert!
How does the loss of species alter ecosystems?
18.05.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für integrative Biodiversitätsforschung (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Excess diesel emissions bring global health & environmental impacts
16.05.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Staphylococcus aureus is a feared pathogen (MRSA, multi-resistant S. aureus) due to frequent resistances against many antibiotics, especially in hospital infections. Researchers at the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut have identified immunological processes that prevent a successful immune response directed against the pathogenic agent. The delivery of bacterial proteins with RNA adjuvant or messenger RNA (mRNA) into immune cells allows the re-direction of the immune response towards an active defense against S. aureus. This could be of significant importance for the development of an effective vaccine. PLOS Pathogens has published these research results online on 25 May 2017.
Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is a bacterium that colonizes by far more than half of the skin and the mucosa of adults, usually without causing infections....
Physicists from the University of Würzburg are capable of generating identical looking single light particles at the push of a button. Two new studies now demonstrate the potential this method holds.
The quantum computer has fuelled the imagination of scientists for decades: It is based on fundamentally different phenomena than a conventional computer....
An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.
We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...
Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...
An Australian-Chinese research team has created the world's thinnest hologram, paving the way towards the integration of 3D holography into everyday...
24.05.2017 | Event News
23.05.2017 | Event News
22.05.2017 | Event News
26.05.2017 | Life Sciences
26.05.2017 | Life Sciences
26.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy