FEB 16, 2023 10:00 AM PST

Elephants may improve the carbon-storing features of African forests

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

The increase in greenhouse gases in the environment seems driven by a one-two punch to the environment. Overall, human activity is a driving factor in the increase in carbon in the atmosphere, particularly through the use of combustion engines and industry that releases waste into the atmosphere. But the second punch comes when humans target the environments best defense against climate change: plants and animals, particularly large forests, that serve as a way to absorb excess carbon and prevent it from staying in the atmosphere. You’ve no doubt heard of the Amazon rainforest being one of the largest carbon “sinks” or absorbers, of carbon in the world. Deforestation at extreme levels threatens this vital defense.

It turns out, certain African forests are actually a better carbon sink that the Amazon per hectare. The persistent question? How. A new study published by a team of researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that elephants may play a crucial role in supporting the vitality of African forests and their role in combating climate change. Without elephants, African tropical forests could not support the work of absorbing carbon.

Often when we think about forests being rich sources of carbon-absorption, the focus is on the trees. And while this is true and important, looking at the broader ecosystem provides clues as to how these forests maintain their vitality. In this case, African forest elephants play an important role.

As part of their study, researchers analyzed the foraging and eating patterns of elephants in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo, as well as analysis of their dung. They found that elephants gravitated towards smaller, thinner treats for foraging. These trees tend to be easier for elephants to reach, and their leaves are more easily digestible.

Clearing out the thinner trees means the larger trees have less competition, allowing them to grow and flourish. It’s the larger trees that have more of an impact on carbon absorption.

Dung heaps also revealed that, due to their diet, elephants were better at distributing the seeds of larger trees, creating more opportunity for these plants to grow and combat climate change.

Sources: Mongabay; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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