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A lot to digest: the significance of elephant dung in ecosystems

Why is elephant dung so big?

If you’ve ever ventured into Tsavo, you’ve likely encountered tell-tale signs of its largest inhabitants, enormous cylindrical masses of fibrous matter scattered across the landscape. These conspicuous dung deposits signify the passage of one of the world’s most remarkable creatures: the elephant. But what drives elephants to produce such massive dung? The answer lies within the intricacies of their digestive systems.

Comparing the digestive systems of elephants to those of other large savannah mammals, such as giraffes, reveals an inherent inefficiency. While giraffes produce tiny, pellet-like dung composed of fine material, elephants excrete much larger dung, comprised of coarse matter. To grasp the reasons behind this disparity, we must delve into the distinct characteristics of these animals’ digestive processes.

Giraffes are ruminants, possessing digestive systems finely tuned to extract maximum nutrition from the tough plant material constituting their diet. They have developed specialized stomachs that harbour a whole range of microbes that actively break down cellulose. To facilitate the breakdown giraffe will regurgitate and re-chew plant matter, a behaviour known as rumination. Ruminants, often seen relaxing in the shade while chewing cud, can digest approximately 85% of their food intake.

In contrast, elephants belong to the category of hind-gut fermenters, creatures equipped with different digestive systems capable of cellulose breakdown. Yet, they’re notably less efficient at nutrient uptake, absorbing only about 22% of consumed nutrients. This digestive strategy grants them the ability to consume copious amounts of low-quality foliage, which they can process swiftly. However, the trade-off involves spending a significant portion of their lives feeding, approximately 18 hours a day, ingesting an average of 150 kg of plant matter, akin to the weight of a lowland gorilla. As a result, the elephant can produce a whopping 100 kg of dung per day.

Elephant’s non-selective feeding style qualifies them as generalist feeders, consuming a broad spectrum of available plant materials. During the wet season, they favour green leafy substances and wild fruits, whereas the arid season prompts a shift to less nutritious fare like stems, roots, and bark. This dietary versatility enables elephants to flourish in diverse habitats, spanning wetlands and forests to savannas and deserts.

Dung driven diversity: elephants as ecosystem engineers

The combination of a generalist diet with an inefficient digestive system makes elephants significant influencers of their surroundings. Within their dung, one often finds undigested fruits and seeds—evidence of their extensive role in seed dispersal. A study conducted in South Africa unveiled that savannah elephants can transport seeds as far as 65 km from their parent trees, catalysing the growth of new trees in varied environments and reshaping landscapes. These seeds, encased in nutrient-rich packages, escape the competitive zone of the parent tree, presenting optimal conditions for successful germination. The scope of this dispersal is staggering, with studies showcasing an elephant’s potential to transport up to 3200 seeds in a day. Remarkably, certain tree species, like Balanites wilsoniana, solely depend on elephants for seed dispersal, underlining the pivotal role these majestic creatures play in preserving the survival of tree species.

The substantial nutrients leftover in elephant dung kickstart a micro food chain. Numerous insects are drawn to the dung to lay their eggs. Once hatched, the larvae feed on the nutrient-rich content. This, in turn, attracts various bird species like spurfowl, which pick through the dung for insects. Dung beetles take part in the action as well, crafting dung balls that they roll away for burial. Inside these balls, female dung beetles deposit their eggs, where their larvae will consume the dung as sustenance. Even baboons engage in the practice of examining elephant dung for insects and unprocessed fruits. These intricate interactions underscore the significant role these large creatures play within the ecosystem. Even their dung fosters a diverse array of life, showcasing the intricate web of nature’s connections.

Elephant sized impacts: fostering climate change resilience

As temperatures rise and new niches emerge, elephants are able to disperse seeds to new environments. These environments, as a result of changing climates, may be more optimal for tree growth. This process of dispersal by elephants can effectively bridge the geographical gaps that emerge due to climate-induced habitat changes. By facilitating the movement of seeds to new locations, elephants play a crucial role in helping ecosystems adapt and evolve. It’s a remarkable example of how the symbiotic relationship between elephants and the plant kingdom can contribute to the resilience of natural systems. Amidst a changing climate, elephant-mediated seed dispersal can facilitate the migration of seeds to newly viable habitats, fostering the creation of fresh ecosystems.

With great power comes great responsibility

The ecosystem effects of elephants on habitats can be highly advantageous. However, during periods of drought when food is scarce and elephants are unable to migrate to new areas due to protected borders, the generalist feeding habits of elephants can lead to environmental damage. Elephants utilize their tusks to strip bark from trees, accessing the nutritious phloem and xylem layers underneath. Unfortunately, this action disrupts the tree’s capacity to convey nutrients from its roots to the leaves above, ultimately resulting in the tree’s death. Moreover, a notable number of elephants, particularly mature bulls, possess the capability to topple trees to access foliage that would otherwise be out of reach. If these behaviours are undertaken extensively, elephants can significantly harm the overall landscape by stripping substantial amounts of vegetation on which other animals, such as giraffes, rely. This exacerbates the adverse effects of the drought.

To sum up, the world of elephant dung goes way beyond what meets the eye, revealing a complex web of connections that go beyond just waste. From kickstarting seed dispersal to nurturing intricate micro-food chains, elephants play a role that shapes ecosystems, even aiding climate resilience. However, this power also carries a duty to protect delicate balances. If not careful, the impacts of these impressive creatures could shift from beneficial to harmful.

Conservation efforts are vital to preserve the delicate harmony elephants bring to their habitats. As elephants contribute to diverse ecosystems and help plants thrive through their dung, their well-being directly impacts the health of these environments. Protecting elephants from threats like habitat loss, poaching, and human-wildlife conflicts is crucial to ensure their vital role in maintaining ecological balance. By safeguarding these majestic creatures, we can uphold the intricate connections they foster, ultimately benefiting the entire ecosystem.


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