Combining paleo-data and modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of megafauna extinctions on woody vegetation
Bakker, ES and Gill, JL and Johnson, CN and Vera, FWM and Sandom, CJ and Asner, GP and Svenning, J-C, Combining paleo-data and modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of megafauna extinctions on woody vegetation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, (4) pp. 847-855. ISSN 0027-8424 (2016) [Refereed Article]
Until recently in Earth history, very large herbivores (mammoths, ground sloths, diprotodons, and many others) occurred in most of the World’s terrestrial ecosystems, but the majority have gone extinct as part of the late-Quaternary extinctions. How has this large-scale removal of large herbivores affected landscape structure and ecosystem functioning? In this review, we combine paleo-data with information from modern exclosure experiments to assess the impact of large herbivores (and their disappearance) on woody species, landscape structure, and ecosystem functions. In modern landscapes characterized by intense herbivory, woody plants can persist by defending themselves or by association with defended species, can persist by growing in places that are physically inaccessible to herbivores, or can persist where high predator activity limits foraging by herbivores. At the landscape scale, different herbivore densities and assemblages may result in dynamic gradients in woody cover. The late-Quaternary extinctions were natural experiments in large-herbivore removal; the paleoecological record shows evidence of widespread changes in community composition and ecosystem structure and function, consistent with modern exclosure experiments. We propose a conceptual framework that describes the impact of large herbivores on woody plant abundance mediated by herbivore diversity and density, predicting that herbivore suppression of woody plants is strongest where herbivore diversity is high. We conclude that the decline of large herbivores induces major alterations in landscape structure and ecosystem functions.