Between 55 and 60 million years ago, in the Miocene epoch, a small pig-like creature – 70cm at the shoulder and not unalike the modern-day tapir – roamed the earth. The Moeritherium is the long-forgotten ancestor of today’s elephant.
The Moeritherium was found in northern Africa. Of its modern and recently-extinct descendents, only one species of Moeritherium’s lineage stayed on the continent. Both the woolly mammoth and the Asian elephant species – which is, interestingly, more closely related to the mammoth than it is its African cousin – left for different climes.
There has been a relative of the African Elephant, Loxonta Africana, on this continent since time immemorial. In fact, this specific relation – the iconic animal we all cherish – has been on the earth even longer than Homo Sapiens.
The African Elephant: – a species so long embedded in Africa’s ecosystem it is essential to the propagation of plant life
Unsurprisingly, considering how long it has been a part of Africa’s varied ecosystems, the African elephant plays an incredibly important part in them.
- Elephant are essential in the dispersal of certain plant seeds
The Asian elephant is definitely the better seed disperser. Researchers have found that many plant species in the forests of Asia are very dependent on elephant. This is because the elephant there can digest seeds that other smaller mammals cannot. It is also because the elephant is one of the greatest travellers in these areas.
When the Asian elephant disperses seeds, it tends to carry them very far from the parent plant. This is essential to the biodiversity of the forest.
In Africa, elephant tend to be more reliant on grasses for their fare. However, just like most generalist feeders, they’ll not turn down fruit when they can find them. Here in East Africa, they have been known to seek out the Marula fruit, for example.
However, there is a specific example from the African elephant that proves its importance to the continent’s plantlife.
The Balanites Wilsoniana tree found in Uganda is, according to Elephant researcher Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, very dependent on forest elephants. No other animal species disperses the Balanites Wilsoniana’s seeds.
- The African elephant plays an important part in nitrogen dispersal
According to a research group from Duke University out of Durham, North Carolina, if elephant populations continue to plummet in Central Africa, 96% of forests there could see major shifts in their make-up.
Nutrient dispersal is an essential component of a healthy, varied forest’s operation. And, often, animals are those that do it.
Africa’s elephants, it has been found, are very important in the distribution of nitrogen. This is again because of the large distances they travel.
- Elephant play a huge part in understory clearing
As elephant pass through the corridors they make in Africa’s forests, they trample and eat certain juvenile plants. In so doing, their presence acts as a natural management system for the propensity of certain plant species.
As elephant are forced out of certain forests, those ecosystems lose this balancing influence.
With the understory unmanaged, less light reaches the forest floor, the competition for nutrients becomes fiercer and certain species find themselves less well-adapted to the changed world they now inhabit.