African Elephants – Nature’s Ecosystem EngineersAugust 12, 2020
Not only are African elephants powerful, compassionate and magnificent animals, they are also ‘ecosystem engineers’, which means they play a critical role in shaping the natural environments where they are found.
African elephants are known as a ‘keystone species’, which National Geographic explains are those species “that have a disproportionately large effect on the communities in which they occur”. From plants to birds, amphibians to mammals, and everything else in between, we know that all species are interconnected and important to the ecosystem in which they live. However, the removal of keystone species specifically from any major ecosystem, results in an imbalance so severe that the entire system can eventually collapse.
The term was coined by American zoologist, Robert Paine, in the early 1960′s while researching purple sea stars along the Washington State coast. He discovered that after removing the sea stars that feed on mussels, their numbers were no longer kept in check and they began to overpopulate the area. The consequence was that other species were forced out and, ultimately, that small ‘example ecosystem’ was destroyed. Subsequent research has identified a wide range of keystone species across the world, including beavers, gray wolves, rhinos, and vultures or nature’s ‘clean-up crew’ as they maintain disease-free environments.
Generally, each keystone species will fall into a category according to the essential role it plays in the healthy functioning and conservation of its habitat. For instance, bees are a keystone species known as ‘mutualists’. They work in a mutually beneficial or symbiotic relationship with flowers because as the bees collect pollen and nectar for food, they are also aiding in plant fertilisation. African elephants are ecosystem engineers for a variety of reasons:
- By breaking and uprooting small trees and bushes, they maintain the grassland ecosystem that would otherwise be smothered by scrubland and forest. This in turn feeds a wide range of herbivores like impala and wildebeest, which in turn feed predators and scavengers like lion and hyena.
- Through their dung, elephants also spread plant seeds to new areas and some seeds are germinate more easily after passing through this mega-herbivore’s digestive tract.
- By keeping the soil healthy, elephants support the earth’s ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the ground. This is a natural way of regulating the earth’s temperature and one of the solutions used to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
Just as completely removing a keystone species from an area will destroy it, so too will having too many of that one species. In their Wildlife Report on Keystone Species, Singita describes this example of “…too many elephants in a fenced reserve or fragmented national park where they are not able to migrate to different parts of southern Africa in their continual search for preferred nourishment. Over time their impact on their contained environment will become too intense for it to recover, and the ecosystem will be destroyed.”
While the natural environment and its wild residents are exceptionally resilient, losing just one species in an entire ecosystem can result in chaos and ultimately collapse. That is why supporting wildlife conservation is more than just saving one single species, it is really about preserving an entire habitat that hosts a multitude of life.
Images taken in Botswana by Patrick Shah, Director of Journeys Discovering Africa.
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