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The Role of Natural Disturbances

Investigating the history of natural disturbances can inform researchers and managers on guidelines for restoration (Donlan et al. 2006). We identified two types of disturbances as fundamental in the maintenance of European landscapes, prior to human appropriation of the land: large herbivores and natural fire dynamics.

The Pre-Neolithic Ecosystem Engineers

Ecosystem engineers are organisms that create and/or maintain habitats, either directly or indirectly (Jones et al. 1994; Wright and Jones 2006) and thus create niches for other species. The fact of grazing and browsing is not enough to be qualified as engineering (Wright and Jones 2006). Nonetheless, the consequences of herbivory, trampling, and fertilizing, especially by large herds of megafauna, have a direct impact on the distribution of habitats (Vera 2000; Birks 2005). Small mammals are also known to have an important impacts on the vegetation, for example by disturbing the soil and modifying its physical and chemical properties (Jones et al. 1994), but this goes beyond the scope of this chapter.

During the interglacial cycles of the late Quaternary, and prior to massive extinctions, the landscapes of Europe were characterized by a rich megafauna (Bradshaw et al. 2003). The available fossil evidence can attest the presence of species in a given region, while using the impact of similar extant species as a proxy can inform on the role of extinct megaherbivores on the landscape (Corlett 2012). Nonetheless, in contrast with pollen, there are too little fossil records of pre-Neolithic large herbivores to allow for an estimate of their past densities (Bradshaw et al. 2003; Mitchell 2005), and we still lack precise knowledge regarding their behavior (Hodder et al. 2009).

The late Pleistocene megafauna of Europe (Table 8.1) resembles the one currently found in savannas, with herbivores such as proboscidae and rhinocerotidae, and large carnivores such as hyaenidae and felidae (Blondel and Aronson 1999; Vera 2000; Bradshaw et al. 2003). Globally, the group of large herbivores suffered more prehistoric extinctions than other taxa (Johnson 2009). Cyclic climatic change had typically been responsible for a regular faunal turnover, and was later combined with increased human pressure (Corlett 2012; Morrison et al. 2007), leading to several of these megafauna becoming regionally (e.g. hippopotamus), globally (e.g. woolly mammoth), and often functionally, extinct (Blondel and Aronson 1999; Bradshaw et al. 2003). Some species also suffered large range contractions, such as the elk (Morrison et al. 2007). Additionally, humans domesticated animals in the Fertile Crescent, about 10,000 years ago (Zeder 2008; Pereira et al. 2012), and as herders migrated west, increasing the area of pasture in Europe, wild herbivores were replaced by domesticated species. Since AD 1, most of the open rangeland in Europe has been under human land-use (Fig. 8.1).

Extinct and extant large herbivores can be classified according to their feeding behavior (Vera 2000; Svenning 2002; Bullock 2009): browsers (e.g. elk, straight-tusked elephants) are typically associated with tree rich areas; grazers (e.g. hippopotamus, aurochs) are in contrast associated with the occurrence of grass-rich habitat; finally, mixed feeders (e.g. red deer, wild goats) alternate between browsing and grazing (Table 8.1). The European bison, a mixed feeder, has for example been associated historically with both closed forest and semi-open habitats (Kuemmerle et al. 2012). The social structure of the herbivores (i.e. solitary, groups or herds) also provides information on the grazing and browsing pressure on the landscape (Table 8.1).

As a result, one of the most direct impacts of large herbivores on the landscape is the limitation and variation in the spatial distribution of secondary successions (Laskurain et al. 2013; Kuiters and Slim 2003). Yet, the role of herbivores goes beyond the direct impacts of browsing and grazing. For example, elephants are known to create large physical disturbances via the trampling of trees and shrubs (Jones et al. 1994), which changes their habitat, the fuel load and the local fire regime, and in return benefits light demanding plant species. The disturbance induced by the rooting behavior of wild boars favors natural forest regeneration, while being considered as damaging to grasslands (Schley et al. 2008; Sandom et al. 2013a). Large herbivores also have a role as seed-dispersers via their consumption of large quantities of forage: the low oral process of the fruits contained in this forage allows the dispersal of undamaged seeds in feces (Corlett 2012; Johnson 2009). Some seeds even need to pass through a digestive track to trigger germination. Finally, herbivore dung is important for nutrient cycling and soil fertilization (Zimov 2005).

Table 8.1  List of extant and extinct species of large herbivores present during the late Pleistocene and at some point between the early Holocene and the current time, in Europe. (Blondel and Aronson 1999; Bradshaw et al. 2003; Bullock 2009; Smith et al. 2003; Svenning 2002; Vera 2000). IUCN Status: LC least concern, VU vulnerable, CR critically endangered. Feeding behavior: M mixed feeders, G grazers, B browsers. Social structure: G groups, H herds, S solitary

Table 8.1 (continued)

Table 8.1 (continued)

a There are four subspecies of Capra pyrenaica, two of which are extinct—C. pyrenaica lusitanica and C. pyrenaica pyrenaica while two are extant—

C. pyrenaica victoriae and C. pyrenaica hispanica

b Cave bears had a predominantly herbivorous diet

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