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Research article2021Peer reviewedOpen access

Megaherbivore impacts on ecosystem and Earth system functioning: the current state of the science

Hyvarinen, Olli; Te Beest, Mariska; le Roux, Elizabeth; Kerley, Graham; de Groot, Esther; Vinita, Rana; Cromsigt, Joris P. G. M.


Megaherbivores (adult body mass > 1000 kg) are suggested to disproportionately shape ecosystem and Earth system functioning. We systematically reviewed the empirical basis for this general thesis and for the more specific hypotheses that 1) megaherbivores have disproportionately larger effects on Earth system functioning than their smaller counterparts, 2) this is true for all extant megaherbivore species and 3) their effects vary along environmental gradients. We furthermore explored possible biases in our understanding of megaherbivore impacts. We found that there are too few studies to quantitatively evaluate the general thesis or any of the hypotheses for all but the African savanna elephant. Following this finding, we performed a qualitative vote counting analysis. Our synthesis of this analysis suggests that megaherbivores can elicit strong impacts on, for example, vegetation structure and biodiversity, and all the elephant species promote seed dispersal. We were, however, unable to evaluate whether these effects are disproportionate to smaller large herbivores. Although environmental conditions can mediate megaherbivore impact, few studies quantified the effect of rainfall or soil fertility on megaherbivore impacts, precluding prediction of megaherbivore effects on the Earth system, particularly under future climates. Moreover, our review highlights major taxonomic, thematic and geographic biases in our understanding of megaherbivore effects. Most of the studies focused on African savanna elephant impacts on vegetation structure and biodiversity, with other megaherbivores and Earth system functions comparatively neglected. Studies were also biased towards semi-arid and relatively fertile systems, with the arid, high-rainfall and/or nutrient-poor parts of the megaherbivores' distribution ranges largely unrepresented. Our findings highlight that the empirical basis of our understanding of the ecological effects of extant megaherbivores is still limited for all species, except the African savanna elephant, and that our current understanding is biased towards certain environmental and geographic areas. We further outline a detailed, urgently needed avenue for future research.


Earth system functioning; ecosystem functioning; herbivore impact; megaherbivore

Published in

2021, Volume: 44, number: 11, pages: 1579-1594
Publisher: WILEY

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    • Sustainable Development Goals

      SDG15 Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

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