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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Mar 18;111(11):4162-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1311014111. Epub 2014 Mar 3.

High herbivore density associated with vegetation diversity in interglacial ecosystems.

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Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark.


The impact of large herbivores on ecosystems before modern human activities is an open question in ecology and conservation. For Europe, the controversial wood-pasture hypothesis posits that grazing by wild large herbivores supported a dynamic mosaic of vegetation structures at the landscape scale under temperate conditions before agriculture. The contrasting position suggests that European temperate vegetation was primarily closed forest with relatively small open areas, at most impacted locally by large herbivores. Given the role of modern humans in the world-wide decimations of megafauna during the late Quaternary, to resolve this debate it is necessary to understand herbivore-vegetation interactions before these losses. Here, a synthetic analysis of beetle fossils from Great Britain shows that beetles associated with herbivore dung were better represented during the Last Interglacial (132,000-110,000 y B.P., before modern human arrival) than in the early Holocene (10,000-5,000 y B.P.). Furthermore, beetle assemblages indicate closed and partially closed forest in the early Holocene but a greater mixture of semiopen vegetation and forest in the Last Interglacial. Hence, abundant and diverse large herbivores appear to have been associated with high structural diversity of vegetation before the megafauna extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene. After these losses and in the presence of modern humans, large herbivores generally were less abundant, and closed woodland was more prevalent in the early Holocene. Our findings point to the importance of the formerly rich fauna of large herbivores in sustaining structurally diverse vegetation in the temperate forest biome and provide support for recent moves toward rewilding-based conservation management.


Vera hypothesis; dung beetles; forest structure; paleoecology

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