Advances in remote sensing technologies are helping scientists to better measure how global landscapes—from forests to savanna—are able to store carbon, a critical insight as they evaluate the potential role of ecosystems in mitigating climate change.One factor often ignored in these carbon cycle assessments, however, is the role of wild animals. Compared with the vast capacity for trees and plants to store carbon, the conventional wisdom goes, low-abundant animal populations simply can’t have much effect on these global systems.
In a new paper published in Science, a team of researchers including Chris Wilmers, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, makes the case that the very presence of wild animals can trigger direct or indirect feedback effects that alter a landscape’s capacity to absorb, release, or transport carbon. In reviewing a growing body of research, they find that animals can increase or decrease rates of biogeochemical processes by 15 to 250 percent or more.
Indeed, they argue that failure to account for the role of animals can undermine the accuracy of any evaluation of ecosystem carbon budgets. They offer insights into how researchers might integrate animal ecology, ecosystem modeling, and remote sensing to more accurately predict and manage carbon cycling across landscapes.
“The world is witnessing two great ecological changes: a warming climate and the redistribution of animals across the surface of the earth, often as a result of the loss of large predators and herbivores,” said Wilmers. “Our work highlights how these two processes are intricately related and why we can’t fully understand climate warming without accounting for the role of animals in the carbon cycle.”
Oswald Schmitz, the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and lead author of the paper, hailed the team’s findings: “Some of us have been saying for …