Are the long-term effects of mesobrowsers on woodland dynamics substitutive or additive to those of elephants?
O'Kane CAJ., Duffy KJ., Page BR., Macdonald DW.
The large spectrum of existing literature on browser-woodland dynamics, both from savanna and temperate biomes, converges towards concluding that all browsers importantly impact woody plants. In this context a crucial question in the current debate about reintroducing elephant culling, is whether the long-term effects of elephants and mesobrowsers are similar. If the two groups impact the same woody species in the same habitats, sufficiently high biomass-densities of mesobrowsers may, following removal of elephants, continue to heavily impact earlier life-history stages of the same suite of woody plants that elephant impacted, preventing these species from maturing. Thus, as existing mature trees die from natural causes and fade from the system, a similar end-point for woodland structure and composition is achieved. We reviewed 49 years of literature on the savanna browser guild, performing a meta-analysis on the disparate data on the guild's woody plant species use (3677 records) and habitat use (894 records). Mesobrowsers' and elephants' extensive overlap in habitat use and staple woody species diet, together with evidence of their influencing each others' abundance and of their dietary separation increasing with resource depletion, implies that the two groups impact the same core woody species in the same habitats. It therefore seems probable that high biomass-density mesobrowsers may have a long-term substitutive effect to that of elephant on woodland dynamics. Consequently management wanting a particular state of savanna woodland, should consider the biomass-density of both groups, rather than just focus on the system's perceived keystone species. Such principles may also apply to temperate and other systems. © 2011 Elsevier Masson SAS.