Spatial redistribution of nutrients by large herbivores and dung beetles in a savanna ecosystem

Michiel P. Veldhuis*, Moniek I. Gommers, Han Olff, Matty P. Berg

*Corresponding author for this work

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    Territorial or resting behaviour of large herbivores can cause strong local deposits of dung, in different places than where they graze. Additionally, dung beetles and other macrodetritivores can subsequently affect local nutrient budgets through post-depositional re-dispersion of dung and accompanying nutrients. Such horizontal displacement of nutrients by animals has strong implications for savanna ecosystem functioning, but remains poorly studied as it is notoriously difficult to accurately map these flows and incredibly time-consuming. In an African savanna, with alternating patches of lawn, bunch grasses and trees/shrubs, we undertook such effort and studied nutrient aggregation and redistribution by different large herbivore functional groups and dung beetles for a full growing season. We used movable cages to quantify herbivore consumption rates and measured nutrient return through biweekly dung counts. Furthermore, we estimated the offtake of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) by the dominant megagrazer (white rhinoceros) to middens (dung deposition hotspots). Last, we experimentally measured the removal amount and movement paths of telocoprid dung beetles to quantify their nutrient redistribution effects. Our estimates suggest white rhinoceros to cause a large export of nutrients from grazing areas towards middens resulting in negative nutrient budgets for both lawn and bunch grassland types. Mesograzers (50–600 kg) realized a net nitrogen input towards high forage quality lawn vegetation at the expense of lower quality bunch grasslands. Browsers caused a net flow from trees/shrubs towards grassland patches. Interestingly, while the magnitude of our estimated flows of N consumption and return by large herbivores were rather similar, the P returns were about half of what has been consumed. This is in agreement with ecological stoichiometry theory that predicts that large herbivores should recycle more N than P, due to their relatively high P demand. Furthermore, dung-rolling beetles had a small, but significant, directed movement from lawn to bunch grassland vegetation. Synthesis. We conclude that within-ecosystem nutrient redistributions by animals are important and approximately of the same order of magnitude as regional atmospheric nutrient in and outputs (e.g. fire emissions, atmospheric N deposition, biological N fixation), and hence are important for understanding savanna ecosystem functioning.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)422-433
    Number of pages12
    JournalJournal of Ecology
    Issue number1
    Early online date3 Oct 2017
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


    • consumer-driven nutrient cycling
    • ecological stoichiometry
    • Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park
    • megaherbivore
    • nitrogen
    • nutrient aggregation
    • phosphorus
    • white rhinoceros


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