Elephants and Ecosystems

Elephants and Ecosystems

Yesterday we talked about ecosystems, what they are, and why they are essential. If you looked at yesterday’s picture, you saw that carbon sequestration was among the “services” provided by ecosystems. Today, there is much concern about atmospheric carbon (carbon dioxide and methane) increasing the “greenhouse effect” and causing global warming. That makes capturing carbon an essential service of ecosystems to protect our survival. One vital area involves African elephants and ecosystems.

Elephants are known as megaherbivores because of their size and the fact that they eat plants. New research has shown that elephants have a “profound” effect on forest ecosystems. We have mentioned before that beavers shape their environment to create ecosystems that support many other life forms. Researchers from Sweden, France, and the United States confirm that elephants are also “ecosystem engineers” that “significantly influence the structure and functioning of ecosystems” such as tropical rainforests in Africa.

The positive connection between elephants and ecosystems involves two aspects of elephant behavior. First, African forest elephants prefer to eat the leaves of trees with low wood density. This is because those leaves contain more protein and less fiber than the ones with high wood density. Secondly, elephants prefer to eat fruit from trees with higher wood density. By eating those fruits, the elephants disperse the seeds of the trees that sequester the most carbon.

Elephants spread more seeds of more plant species than any other animal. The elephant’s diet enables the survival and spread of the trees that store more carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere. At the same time, elephants reduce overcrowding by the lower-density plants, allowing the larger trees to grow. This balance of elephants and ecosystems helps to protect the planet from excess carbon in the atmosphere.

The study concludes that elephant conservation will significantly affect global climate by controlling the amount of atmospheric carbon. God has designed a worldwide system of many ecosystems that make Earth suitable for advanced life to thrive. Our job is to protect the blessings God has given us to enjoy. Who doesn’t enjoy watching elephants?

— Roland Earnst © 2023

Reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences