Essential to the Ecosystem: Elephants May Be the Ecosystem Engineers of their Habitats

By Laura Hart, Science Writer

As the human population expands, our involvement in conservation efforts is vital to species facing the threat of extinction. For 84% of species, human intervention is now imperative to ensure their survival. With endangered species often being the most sensitive to environmental change, any variation in the structure of that habitat such as tree density, light levels, shrub density, and water availability can have devastating impacts.

When these effects are caused by a species which is itself a threatened animal, addressing this can become complex. African elephants are currently classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and are known to exhibit behaviors such as grazing, scent marking and digging. During their lengthy annual migrations, the impacts of elephant behavior on any single area are reduced. However, when these migrations are disturbed, the behaviors can become compounded and destructive, potentially permanently upsetting the environment in their wake.

As a large species, elephants need similarly large reserves and will often damage the structure of the reserves in which they live. Reserve managers often view this destructive behavior as problematic for the health of the reserve. However, recent studies suggest that these destructive elephant behaviors may create more suitable habitat for other species within the reserve. This is of particular importance for reserves which seek to conserve several species simultaneously.

Ecosystem Engineers

Species which create and destroy structures within an ecosystem are known as ecosystem engineers. Ecosystem engineers are found around the globe in nearly every environment. The Mangrove Crabs typically found in Brazil and Florida help maintain mangrove systems through the burying and ingesting of leaf litter, creating habitats for other species.

Woodpeckers also serve a vital role in their environment as their nest holes later become nests and hibernation sites for other birds, plants, small mammals, and insects. Across Africa, elephants may play a similar role in their own environments.

As elephants have become a staple of wildlife reservations, the destructive behaviors exhibited such as breaking trees through scent marking have attracted more attention from ecologists. With this new focus, these animals are only now being seen as ecosystem engineers instead of purely destructive forces.

Collaboration Across the Ecosystem

African elephants share their habitat with numerous endangered species such as white and black rhinoceros, mountain bongos, Ethiopian wolves, and cheetahs. Due to their potential status as ecosystem engineers, African Elephants and their conservation have become essential components of habitat conservation.

While the dependence of other species upon the behavior of elephants has not yet been confirmed, the elephant’s threat of poaching and habitat loss undeniably affect other species who rely on the presence of elephants. Recent data suggests that the presence of elephants in Mount Kenya may indicate the presence of critically endangered Mountain Bongo.

This mutual presence hints at a dependent relationship where at least one species benefits from the existence of the other. The preservation of habitats in which both species are present may have wider reaching benefits and assist in the effort to prevent these and other species from succumbing to extinction.

Building the Right Habitat

The correct habitat structure is key in ensuring conservation of species without constant human intervention. The right system provides protection, food, suitable terrain, and water sources and, in doing so, can also reduce the costs associated with conservation. By providing these conditions it is possible for habitat structure to encourage population growth as well as reducing incidents of poaching.

This initial design can be and often is a time and money consuming task. However, by identifying the potential of elephants to alter habitat in ways that may be beneficial for other species, the associated costs of habitat management may be reduced. As costs of conservation are ever increasing, this efficiency will allow for further investment in anti-poaching units and park rangers.

Though natural habitat structures are changing at an unprecedented rate due to a number of factors including climate change and human activity, the effects of ecosystem engineers should not be underestimated. As the movement towards rewilding and promoting wildlife self-sustainability draws increased interest in ecosystem engineers, the use of these animals may be a valuable conservation tool in the future as the world's animals continue to face new and more deadly threats.

African Elephant may soon be officially classed as an ecosystem engineer whose behaviors

are essential to the long-term survival of other species. If this proves to be the case, large nature reserves may look to incorporate the animals and a wide variety of other species in to their own reservation. These varied populations can serve as a source of research into the potential benefits as well as a way to help ensure the long-term conservation of all the species involved.


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