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Elephant effects on treefall and logfall highlight the absence of megaherbivores in coarse woody debris conceptual frameworks

Landman, Marietjie, Mgqatsa, Nokubonga, Cromsigt, Joris P.G.M., Kerley, Graham I.H.
Forest ecology and management 2019 v.438 pp. 57-62
Elephantidae, biodiversity, coarse woody debris, drought, ecosystems, environmental impact, insects, topographic slope, trees, wind, wood, woodlands, South Africa
Despite the importance of coarse woody debris (CWD) in woody ecosystems, conceptual frameworks of its dynamics currently exclude the role of the megaherbivores, focusing instead on the role of insects, disease, fire, wind and droughts. However, recognizing the ecological roles of the megaherbivores is one of the most urgent contemporary issues, particularly as their decline will likely have unanticipated outcomes at the ecosystem-level. Here we used sites with and without elephants in a semi-arid woodland ecosystem in South Africa to test whether elephants changed the quantitative and qualitative features of the CWD profile in relation to other wood producers. We show that elephants increased the abundance of CWD, influenced its quality by toppling mostly maturing trees, and changed the distribution of large woody items along gentle hillslopes. Surprisingly, and despite the recognized importance of both CWD and elephants for biodiversity, there is almost no published data on the role of elephants in shaping wood-living communities by changing fallen woody debris dynamics. Our study contributes towards developing a broader conceptual framework of CWD dynamics that includes the role of megaherbivores and provides a novel view of the ecological consequences of the loss of the Pleistocene megaherbivores. Our findings have important implications for CWD restoration efforts in transformed systems that previously supported megaherbivores.