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Megafauna history shapes plants

April 24th, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

The role of large herbivores in explaining broad-scale ecological pattern has probably been underestimated [1]. For instance, they are important in maintaining many landscapes and biomes across the world [2]. In a recent paper we show that the different history of megafauna abundance and extinctions in different continents has shaped the dominance of many plant traits [3]. Tropical Africa (paelotropics) and tropical South America (neotropics) are a clear example of contrasting megafauna history under similar environmental conditions. By comparing plant traits of woody species in different biomes (savannas and forests) and for the two different continents, we found that continent explain better the differences in plant traits than biome, climate, or soil, and that the differences between continents are consistent with the higher impact of large vertebrates in Africa than in South America. For instance, plants in African savannas tend to be more thorny and to have higher wood density, i.e., traits related to defense against megaherbivores. In contrast, South American savannas (Cerrado) harbor more species with underground bud banks (geoxyles [4]), and thicker protective barks, i.e., traits related to protect from wildfires [4,5].

Megafauna was certainly present in South America before the Holocene overkilling by humans, however, it is unlikely they live in the brazilian savannas (cerrado); their weak and vulnerable stems (low height growth, low wood density, and lack of spines), are unlikely to have evolved in regions with abundant browsers. We hypotheses that megafauna in South America was distributed in: 1) an open version of the current seasonally dry tropical forests (SDTF, e.g., Chaco) as the proportion of thorny species is similar to African savannas (and much higher than the cerrado); and 2) the subtropical grasslands, as they currently need to be maintained by humans due to the missing megaherbivores (landscape anachronism [1]).

Overall our results suggest that variation in plant traits in the tropics is unlikely to be fully understood without considering historical factors, especially the direct and indirect impacts of megafauna. Looking at plants and thinking on their megafauna history may provide novel insights for understanding vegetation patterns across the globe [1].

The effects of megafauna history (left: absence, right: present of megafauna) on plant functional traits of tropical woody species in different biomes (savannas and forests). Arrows between the dominant driver(s) (boxes) and traits (circles) indicate positive (blue) and negative (red) effects. From [3]


[1] Pausas JG & Bond WJ. 2019. Humboldt and the reinvention of nature. J. Ecol. 107: 1031-1037. [doi | jecol blog | jgp blog | pdf]

[2] Pausas JG & Bond WJ. 2020. Alternative biome states in terrestrial ecosystems. Trends Plant Sci. 25: 250-263. [doi | sciencedirect | cell | pdf]

[3] Dantas V & Pausas JG. 2020. Megafauna biogeography explains plant functional trait variability in the tropics. Glob. Ecol. & Biogeogr. [doi | pdf | data:dryad]

[4] Pausas JG, Lamont BB, Paula S, Appezzato-da-Glória B & Fidelis A. 2018. Unearthing belowground bud banks in fire-prone ecosystems. New Phytol. 217: 1435–1448. [doi | pdf | suppl. | BBB database]

[5] Pausas JG. 2017. Bark thickness and fire regime: another twist. New Phytol. 213: 13-15. [doi | wiley | pdf]  &  Pausas, J.G. 2015. Bark thickness and fire regime. Funct. Ecol. 29:317-327. [doi | pdf | suppl.]

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