Where the herbivores roam and plants grow

An analysis of a community of herbivores under the pressure of predators and humans has revealed distinct ‘herbiscapes’ in a European temperate forest.
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The red deer was the only herbivore studied whose distribution was strongly linked to that of its main predator. Image credit: Luc Viatour (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In almost every ecosystem on Earth, communities of herbivores are kept in check by both predators and the availability of the plants they eat. As herbivores move in response to these pressures, they shape local plant communities and impact vegetation across entire landscapes. Yet the role of large plant-eating mammals in structuring ecosystems is often overlooked. Indeed, most research on this topic has looked at African ecosystems, like open savannahs, and fewer researchers have studied temperate forests like those found across Europe, Asia and North America.

Bubnicki et al. have now examined factors influencing the distribution of five large herbivore species and resulting plant communities in Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland, the best-preserved European lowland forest. Their method involved measuring the cascading interactions of plants and animals in the forest using cameras set at nearly 900 locations, satellite images and other remote sensing technologies, and on-the-ground surveys. Added to this were patterns of human activity inferred from the available data for the study area. This approach allowed Bubnicki et al. to explore how humans are influencing the forest ecosystem, too.

The analysis revealed that humans are the main factor influencing the movements of carnivorous predators in Białowieża Forest, but not the herbivores directly. Wolves and lynxes avoided areas heavily used by humans whereas large herbivores responded primarily to different environmental factors. Wild boar and bison are influenced by the availability of plant food and preferred habitat for foraging; moose and roe deer by the features of the landscape, like elevation or openness. The red deer was the only large herbivore species whose distribution was strongly linked to that of its main predator, the wolf.

From this, Bubnicki et al. identified distinct areas in the forest which have emerged from the interactions at play, describing these areas as ‘herbiscapes’ for the herbivores that shaped them. These findings provide new understanding of the complex ecological processes shaping the Białowieża Forest and serve as a model to help understand other ecosystems around the world. The knowledge will also contribute to the ongoing management and conservation of this UNESCO World Heritage Area.