Did large animals play an important role in global biogeochemical cycling in the past?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 5:00 PM
Chris Doughty, Oxford University, Environmental Change Institute, Oxford, United Kingdom
In the late Pleistocene (~50-10,000 years ago), ninety-seven genera of large animals (>44kg) (megafauna) went extinct, concentrated in the Americas and Australia. The loss of megafauna had major effects on ecosystem structure, seed dispersal and land surface albedo. However, the impact of this dramatic extinction on ecosystem nutrient biogeochemistry, through the lateral transport of dung and bodies, has never been explored. Here we explore these nutrient impacts using a novel mathematical framework that analyses this lateral transport as a diffusion-like process and demonstrates that large animals play a disproportionately large role in the horizontal transfer of nutrients across landscapes. For example, we estimate that the extinction of the Amazonian megafauna led to a >98% reduction in the lateral transfer flux of the limiting nutrient phosphorus (P) with similar, though less extreme, decreases in all continents outside of Africa. This resulted in strong decreases in phosphorus availability in Eastern Amazonia away from fertile floodplains, a decline which may still be ongoing, and current P limitation in the Amazon basin may be partially a relic of an ecosystem without the functional connectedness it once had. More broadly, the Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions resulted in major and ongoing disruptions to terrestrial biogeochemical cycling at continental scales and increased nutrient heterogeneity globally.