Monday, November 7, 2016

#ElephantTuesdays: An elephant´s role in nature 🐘

Elephants are fascinating creatures. It´s no wonder that only a short 15-second video brings up interesting questions about their behavior, biology and nature.

The answers happened to be of interest, and this took us to think that it might be good to share them with all the C&S users.

This is a citizen platform focused mainly on chimpanzees, but when it comes to conservation, one cannot study a single species ecology without a general approach, and taking other related species into account.


African elephants are listed on Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endagered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) - although some States transferred back to Appendix II with specific annotations - and classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN  (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Like chimpanzees, the African elephants are considered “flagship species”, that is, iconic species that provide a focus for raising awareness and action to fund broader conservation efforts.

They play a vital role in maintaining their ecosystems. They are also regarded as “keystone species” because of their important ecological role and impact on the environment, helping to open up forest clearings and distribute seeds. They can provide water for other species by digging holes in dry riverbeds and may help create paths between forest patches which can act as firebreaks and are often used by chimpanzees (and other animals) to travel.

Elephant path:

chimp on elephant path: 

Original videos: ACP000027g , ACP000023w

Besides, their footprints form natural mini puddles that form new habitats for some small aquatic species; Wolfram Remmers at the University of Koblenz in Germany, surveyed 30 such prints in the swamp forests of Kibale National Park, Uganda, over a three-day period in 2014. He and his colleagues found over 60 species, including beetles, spiders, worms and tadpoles.

Seed dispersal.

Elephants are known to be `seed dispersers´, as they disperse seeds by eating them, transporting them, and then spreading them through their dung. The overall body size of an elephant and their highly frugivorous diet make them particularly impressive seed dispersers. They are also responsible for spreading seeds in very long distances. There are some plant species which depend entirely on elephants for their dispersal. For example, in Uganda, the seeds of a plant called ‘Balanites Wilson’ are completely dependent on savannah elephants to consume and disperse their seeds, as no other animals perform this function. This particular ability allows for the rejuvenation of some habitats.

Importance of elephant dung

After seeds are dispersed by elephants, their dung provides a suitable germination environment in which seeds can grow, as it is extremely rich in minerals and fiber. It is also important in nutrient cycling, as dung provides rich nutrients to soils, acting as a great fertilizer.

Elephant dung also provides food for other species of birds, mongooses, monkeys and insects like beetles, that roll balls of dung and bury them to store as a food supply for their larvae. Others like small birds and mammals can consume undigested material from the dung, sometimes acting as secondary seed dispersers.

Not only does dung provide food for other species, but it also provides a suitable habitat for them, in a way that a dung pile could be a small ecosystem in itself. For example, many invertebrates including beetles, ants, centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, crickets, spiders and termites are found living in dung. These invertebrates will then be used as food source by other vertebrates like jungle fowls and monitors.

As a curiosity, the elephant poo is also used to make paper, widely advertised in the internet.


Several threats like habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation -leading to the elephant isolation in habitat patches forming the so called `pocketed herds´, have caused the elephant population size decrease during the last decades. As keystone species, they have a large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. It is a species which plays an important role in maintaining and balancing the structure of an ecological community and affecting many other organisms within this community. The loss of elephants from one particular site would mean that all the biological interactions and ecosystem processes in which they are involved, would also be lost.

As “umbrella species”, the African elephants are selected for making conservation-related decisions, because by protecting them, another co-existing species benefiting from them are also preserved.

Often species conservation can be quite controversial and subjective, and as a consequence very difficult. The identification of flagship species, keystone species and umbrella species makes conservation decisions easier, more plausible and convincing.

African Journal of Ecology
Think Elephants International
The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management, R. Sukumar, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India 

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