An international research team, including scientists from Lund University, has utilized global satellite data to map tree cover in the world’s protected areas. Their study, published in the scientific journal One Earth, reveals the significant impact of large herbivores on tree cover diversity in these regions, emphasizing their crucial role in promoting biodiversity and achieving climate goals.
The maintenance of species-rich and resilient ecosystems is paramount for preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Megafauna, which constitutes the largest animals in an ecosystem, plays a vital role in this context. The study investigates the intricate relationship between the number of voracious herbivores and tree diversity in the world’s protected areas.
Researchers found that areas with abundant large herbivores exhibit more variable tree cover, enhancing overall biodiversity. While the tree cover in these regions may be sparser, the diversity of the trees is significantly higher than in areas without large herbivores.
Lead author of the study, Lanhui Wang, a researcher in physical geography and ecosystem science at Lund University, notes that “our findings reveal a fascinating and complex story of how large herbivorous animals shape the world’s natural landscapes.”
The study highlights the positive association between the biomass of large herbivores and varied tree cover in protected areas. Notably, this phenomenon is pronounced in the case of browsers and mixed-feeders such as elephants, bison, and moose, particularly in non-extreme climates. The research underscores the vital role large wild herbivores play in fostering a diverse vegetation structure that provides rich habitats for numerous species. This contribution is attributed to the animals’ consumption of vegetation and their physical disturbances.
The results emphasize the importance of integrating large herbivores into restoration and conservation strategies, not only for their well-being but also for the pivotal role they play in shaping landscapes and influencing biodiversity. The study argues that this aspect is often overlooked in discussions of sustainable land management and ecosystem restoration.
In light of the UN’s declaration of the 2020s as the decade of ecosystem restoration and the global commitment to restore up to 100,000 square kilometers of nature across 115 countries, the researchers stress the need for more wild-living large herbivores worldwide to achieve these goals.
Lanhui Wang asserts, “I believe that we will need to protect and conserve large herbivores to achieve the UN goals. Megafauna are crucial for tree cover, which in turn promotes carbon sequestration and a diversity of habitats.”
As the world focuses on combatting climate change and biodiversity loss, the study’s findings underscore the urgency of recognizing the ecological impact of megafauna in ecosystem management and conservation efforts.