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Extinction Of Large Herbivores May Explain Modern-Day Wildfires, Researchers Say

Nov 02, 2015 02:56 PM EST
Pleistocene Landscape
Large prehistoric herbivores made up for the lack of lawn mowers by opening landscapes and trimming trees themselves. Before their extinction, this prevented widespread wildfires.
(Photo : Roman Uchytel)

Large prehistoric herbivores took the place of lawn mowers by opening landscapes and trimming trees. But when animals, including wolly mammoths, went extinct, vegetation went wild and landscape structures changed rapidly, according to a recent study conducted by researchers from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). Among other things, their research may help scientists better explain more frequent modern-day wildfires.

"Large herbivores are not merely victims of the circumstances they live in, but actively engineer their environment. This has major consequences for other species, and for the structure of the entire landscape," Liesbeth Bakker, lead author of the study from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, explained in a news release. "Acknowledging the major ecosystem-engineering role of large herbivores, you can't imagine that vegetation stayed the same regardless of their presence or absence in the Late Pleistocene."

For their study, researchers focused on the causes of Late Pleistocene herbivore extinctions. When tracing vegetation changes, they found evidence suggesting that shrubs and trees became more abundant following Late Pleistocene extinctions. There were also major shifts in the composition of plant species.

Using this information, researchers were able to paint a clearer picture of how open the landscapes may have been during the Pleistocene, based on the diversity of herbivore species and animal densities. This study has implications for better understanding present-day ecosystem functions. Wildfires are more likely to occur where herbivours have been killed off because as fire is more easily fueled and spread due to the abundance of foliage. This environmental phenomenon also occurred following the Late Pleistocene, researchers noted in their study.

The findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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