Elephants as agents of habitat creation for small vertebrates at the patch scale

Ecology. 2008 Jan;89(1):26-33. doi: 10.1890/07-0776.1.


Ecologists increasingly recognize the ability of certain species to influence ecological processes by engineering the physical environment, but efforts to develop a predictive understanding of this phenomenon are in their early stages. While many believe that the landscape-scale effects of ecosystem engineers will be to increase habitat diversity and therefore the abundance and richness of other species, few generalities exist about the effects of engineering at the scale of the engineered patch. According to one hypothesis, activities that increase structural habitat complexity within engineered patches will have positive effects on the abundance or diversity of other organisms. Here I show that, by damaging trees and increasing their structural complexity, browsing elephants create refuges used by a common arboreal lizard. Observational surveys and a lizard transplant experiment revealed that lizards preferentially occupy trees with real or simulated elephant damage. A second experiment showed that lizards vacate trees when elephant-engineered refuges are removed. Furthermore, local lizard densities increased with (and may be constrained by) local densities of elephant-damaged trees. This facilitative effect of elephants upon lizards via patch-scale habitat modification runs contrary to previously documented negative effects of the entire ungulate guild on lizards at the landscape scale, suggesting that net indirect effects of large herbivores comprise opposing trophic and engineering interactions operating at different spatial scales. Such powerful megaherbivore-initiated interactions suggest that anthropogenic changes in large-mammal densities will have important cascading consequences for ecological communities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Ecosystem*
  • Elephants / physiology*
  • Environment*
  • Kenya
  • Lizards / physiology*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Trees / physiology