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Concept: Grazing


Human appropriation of land for agriculture has greatly altered the terrestrial carbon balance, creating a large but uncertain carbon debt in soils. Estimating the size and spatial distribution of soil organic carbon (SOC) loss due to land use and land cover change has been difficult but is a critical step in understanding whether SOC sequestration can be an effective climate mitigation strategy. In this study, a machine learning-based model was fitted using a global compilation of SOC data and the History Database of the Global Environment (HYDE) land use data in combination with climatic, landform and lithology covariates. Model results compared favorably with a global compilation of paired plot studies. Projection of this model onto a world without agriculture indicated a global carbon debt due to agriculture of 133 Pg C for the top 2 m of soil, with the rate of loss increasing dramatically in the past 200 years. The HYDE classes “grazing” and “cropland” contributed nearly equally to the loss of SOC. There were higher percent SOC losses on cropland but since more than twice as much land is grazed, slightly higher total losses were found from grazing land. Important spatial patterns of SOC loss were found: Hotspots of SOC loss coincided with some major cropping regions as well as semiarid grazing regions, while other major agricultural zones showed small losses and even net gains in SOC. This analysis has demonstrated that there are identifiable regions which can be targeted for SOC restoration efforts.

Concepts: Soil, Climate change, Pasture, Steppe, Livestock, Grazing, Land use, Land management


Niche partitioning facilitates species coexistence in a world of limited resources, thereby enriching biodiversity. For decades, biologists have sought to understand how diverse assemblages of large mammalian herbivores (LMH) partition food resources. Several complementary mechanisms have been identified, including differential consumption of grasses versus nongrasses and spatiotemporal stratification in use of different parts of the same plant. However, the extent to which LMH partition food-plant species is largely unknown because comprehensive species-level identification is prohibitively difficult with traditional methods. We used DNA metabarcoding to quantify diet breadth, composition, and overlap for seven abundant LMH species (six wild, one domestic) in semiarid African savanna. These species ranged from almost-exclusive grazers to almost-exclusive browsers: Grass consumption inferred from mean sequence relative read abundance (RRA) ranged from >99% (plains zebra) to <1% (dik-dik). Grass RRA was highly correlated with isotopic estimates of % grass consumption, indicating that RRA conveys reliable quantitative information about consumption. Dietary overlap was greatest between species that were similar in body size and proportional grass consumption. Nonetheless, diet composition differed between all species-even pairs of grazers matched in size, digestive physiology, and location-and dietary similarity was sometimes greater across grazing and browsing guilds than within them. Such taxonomically fine-grained diet partitioning suggests that coarse trophic categorizations may generate misleading conclusions about competition and coexistence in LMH assemblages, and that LMH diversity may be more tightly linked to plant diversity than is currently recognized.

Concepts: Human, Biodiversity, Species, Plant, Ecology, Herbivore, Grazing, Partition


A molecular procedure was developed to detect and quantify larvae of different strongylid parasite species recovered from pasture samples. Two lamb flocks (L and S) grazed separate paddocks with different natural larvae challenges (one low [Paddock L] and one high [Paddock S] challenge) on a commercial farm in Western Australia. Pasture samples were collected and analysed for larvae on 9 separate occasions from each paddock. Pregnant Merino ewes were sampled on 3 separate occasions (2 pre-partum and 1 post-partum). Following lambing, 203 female crossbred lambs were identified, from which faecal samples were collected across five separate samplings. Lamb production and faecal attributes were recorded. Genomic DNA was extracted directly from lamb faeces, in addition to the genomic DNA extracts from strongylid larval species recovered from pastures. Faecal worm egg counts (FWECs) were undertaken. Species-specific qPCRs and conventional PCRs (ITS-2 nuclear ribosomal DNA) were used to screen samples for strongylid species (Teladorsagia circumcincta, Trichostrongylus spp., Haemonchus contortus, Chabertia ovina and Oesophagostomum venulosum). Negative correlations (r(2)>0.91) were found between qPCR C(q) values and log-transformed pasture larval counts for Trichostrongylus spp. and T. circumcincta. Moderate levels of agreement between pasture larval counts and qPCR results were observed (67%). A clear difference in pasture larval challenge levels was observed between the two flocks using both qPCR and conventional pasture larval counts. It is difficult to draw conclusions on the production performances of lambs from the two experimental flocks, as no further replicates were able to be conducted following this experiment. Flock L had higher dressing percentages than Flock S (P=0.038), along with significantly higher faecal consistency and breech fleece faecal soiling scores at successive samplings. The molecular procedures utilised in this study have the potential to be beneficial for livestock grazing management strategies and parasite surveillance, however further investigation is necessary before they can become part of routine diagnostics.

Concepts: Pasture, Field, Farm, Livestock, Grazing, Domestic sheep, Haemonchus contortus, LaMB


Natural and anthropogenic stressors can cause phase shifts from coral-dominated to algal-dominated states. In the Caribbean, over-fishing of large herbivorous fish and disease among the long-spined urchin, Diadema, have facilitated algal growth on degraded reefs. We found that diminutive species of urchin and parrotfish, which escaped die-offs and fishing pressure, can achieve abundances comparable to total herbivore biomass on healthier, protected reefs, and exert sufficient grazing function to pre-empt macroalgal dominance following mass coral mortality. Grazing was highest on the most degraded reefs, and was driven by small herbivores that made up >93% of the average herbivore biomass (per m(2)). We suggest that previously marginal species can achieve a degree of functional redundancy, and that their compensatory herbivory may play an important role in ecosystem resilience. Management strategies should consider the potential role of these additional herbivore functional groups in safeguarding natural controls of algal growth in times of increased uncertainty for the world’s reefs.

Concepts: Plant, Predation, Animal, Coral reef, Herbivore, Grazing, Herbivory, Browsing


1. Competition among sympatric wild herbivores is reduced by different physiological, morphological, and behavioral traits resulting in different dietary niches. Wild equids are a rather uniform group of large herbivores which have dramatically declined in numbers and range. Correlative evidence suggests that pasture competition with livestock is one of the key factors for this decline, and the situation may be aggravated in areas where different equid species overlap. 2. The Dzungarian Gobi is currently the only place where two wild equid species coexist and share the range with the domesticated form of a third equid species. In the arid and winter cold Gobi, pasture productivity is low, highly seasonal, and wild equids additionally face increasing livestock densities. 3. We used stable isotope chronologies of tail hairs to draw inferences about multi-year diet seasonality, isotopic dietary niches, and physiological adaptations in the Asiatic wild ass (khulan), reintroduced Przewalski’s horse, and domestic horse in the Mongolian part of the Dzungarian Gobi. 4. Our results showed that even in the arid Gobi, both horse species are predominantly grazers, whereas khulan are highly seasonal, switching from being grazers in summer to mixed feeders in winter. The isotopic dietary niches of the two horse species were almost identical, did not vary with season as in khulan, and were narrower than in the latter. Higher δ(15)N values point towards higher water use efficiency in khulan, which may be one reason why they can exploit pastures further away from water. 5. Synthesis and applications: The high degree of isotopic dietary niche overlap in the two horses points towards a high potential for pasture competition during the critical nutritional bottleneck in winter and highlights the need to severely restrict grazing of domestic horses on the range of the Przewalski’s horses. Khulan are less constrained by water and seem more flexible in their choice of diet or less successful in exploiting grass dominated habitats in winter due to human presence. Providing additional water sources could increase the competition between khulan and livestock, and should therefore be only done following careful consideration.

Concepts: Horse, Pasture, Livestock, Grazing, Equus, Equidae, Donkey, Przewalski's Horse


One of the most frequently quoted ecosystem services of seagrass meadows is their value for coastal protection. Many studies emphasize the role of above-ground shoots in attenuating waves, enhancing sedimentation and preventing erosion. This raises the question if short-leaved, low density (grazed) seagrass meadows with most of their biomass in belowground tissues can also stabilize sediments. We examined this by combining manipulative field experiments and wave measurements along a typical tropical reef flat where green turtles intensively graze upon the seagrass canopy. We experimentally manipulated wave energy and grazing intensity along a transect perpendicular to the beach, and compared sediment bed level change between vegetated and experimentally created bare plots at three distances from the beach. Our experiments showed that i) even the short-leaved, low-biomass and heavily-grazed seagrass vegetation reduced wave-induced sediment erosion up to threefold, and ii) that erosion was a function of location along the vegetated reef flat. Where other studies stress the importance of the seagrass canopy for shoreline protection, our study on open, low-biomass and heavily grazed seagrass beds strongly suggests that belowground biomass also has a major effect on the immobilization of sediment. These results imply that, compared to shallow unvegetated nearshore reef flats, the presence of a short, low-biomass seagrass meadow maintains a higher bed level, attenuating waves before reaching the beach and hence lowering beach erosion rates. We propose that the sole use of aboveground biomass as a proxy for valuing coastal protection services should be reconsidered.

Concepts: Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Erosion, Pasture, Grazing, Beach, Coastal geography, Seagrass


Climate-driven changes in biotic interactions can profoundly alter ecological communities, particularly when they impact foundation species. In marine systems, changes in herbivory and the consequent loss of dominant habitat forming species can result in dramatic community phase shifts, such as from coral to macroalgal dominance when tropical fish herbivory decreases, and from algal forests to ‘barrens’ when temperate urchin grazing increases. Here, we propose a novel phase-shift away from macroalgal dominance caused by tropical herbivores extending their range into temperate regions. We argue that this phase shift is facilitated by poleward-flowing boundary currents that are creating ocean warming hotspots around the globe, enabling the range expansion of tropical species and increasing their grazing rates in temperate areas. Overgrazing of temperate macroalgae by tropical herbivorous fishes has already occurred in Japan and the Mediterranean. Emerging evidence suggests similar phenomena are occurring in other temperate regions, with increasing occurrence of tropical fishes on temperate reefs.

Concepts: Plant, Predation, Ecology, Animal, Coral reef, Herbivore, Grazing, Herbivory


BACKGROUND: Herbivore coexistence on the Late Cretaceous island continent of Laramidia has been a topic of great interest, stemming from the paradoxically high diversity and biomass of these animals in relation to the relatively small landmass available to them. Various hypotheses have been advanced to account for these facts, of which niche partitioning is among the most frequently invoked. However, despite its wide acceptance, this hypothesis has not been rigorously tested. This study uses the fossil assemblage from the Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta as a model to investigate whether niche partitioning facilitated herbivorous dinosaur coexistence on Laramidia. Specifically, the question of feeding height stratification is examined in light of the role it plays in facilitating modern ungulate coexistence. RESULTS: Most herbivorous dinosaur species from the Dinosaur Park Formation were restricted to feeding no higher than approximately 1 m above the ground. There is minimal evidence for feeding height partitioning at this level, with ceratopsids capable of feeding slightly higher than ankylosaurs, but the ecological significance of this is ambiguous. Hadrosaurids were uniquely capable of feeding up to 2 m quadrupedally, or up to 5 m bipedally. There is no evidence for either feeding height stratification within any of these clades, or for change in these ecological relationships through the approximately 1.5 Ma record of the Dinosaur Park Formation. CONCLUSIONS: Although we cannot reject the possibility, we find no good evidence that feeding height stratification, as revealed by reconstructed maximum feeding heights, played an important role in facilitating niche partitioning among the herbivorous dinosaurs of Laramdia. Most browsing pressure was concentrated in the herb layer, although hadrosaurids were capable of reaching shrubs and low-growing trees that were out of reach from ceratopsids, ankylosaurs, and other small herbivores, effectively dividing the herbivores in terms of relative abundance. Sympatric hadrosaurids may have avoided competing with one another by feeding differentially using bipedal and quadrupedal postures. These ecological relationships evidently proved to be evolutionarily stable because they characterize the herbivore assemblage of the Dinosaur Park Formation through time. If niche partitioning served to facilitate the rich diversity of these animals, it may have been achieved by other means in addition to feeding height stratification. Consideration of other feeding height proxies, including dental microwear and skull morphology, may help to alleviate problems of underdetermination identified here.

Concepts: Plant, Ecology, Animal, Herbivore, Grazing, Omnivore, Dinosaur, Bipedalism


The direct trophic links between mammalian herbivores and plant-dwelling insects have been practically ignored. Insects are ubiquitous on plants consumed by mammalian herbivores and are thus likely to face the danger of being incidentally ingested by a grazing mammal. A few studies have shown that some herbivorous hemipterans are able to avoid this peril by dropping to the ground upon detecting the heat and humidity on the mammal’s breath. We hypothesized that if this risk affects the entire plant-dwelling insect community, other insects that share this habitat are expected to develop similar escape mechanisms. We assessed the ability of three species (adults and larvae) of coccinellid beetles, important aphid predators, to avoid incidental ingestion. Both larvae and adults were able to avoid incidental ingestion effectively by goats by dropping to the ground, demonstrating the importance of this behavior in grazed habitats. Remarkably, all adult beetles escaped by dropping off the plant and none used their functional wings to fly away. In controlled laboratory experiments, we found that human breath caused 60-80% of the beetles to drop. The most important component of mammalian herbivore breath in inducing adult beetles and larvae to drop was the combination of heat and humidity. The fact that the mechanism of dropping in response to mammalian breath developed in distinct insect orders and disparate life stages accentuates the importance of the direct influence of mammalian herbivores on plant-dwelling insects. This direct interaction should be given its due place when discussing trophic interactions.

Concepts: Insect, Plant, Predation, Animal, Herbivore, Grazing, Aphid, Browsing


Abundant herbivores can damage plants and so cause conflict with conservation, agricultural, and fisheries interests. Management of herbivore populations is a potential tool to alleviate such conflicts but may raise concerns about the economic and ethical costs of implementation, especially if the herbivores are ‘charismatic’ and popular with the public. Thus it is critical to evaluate the probability of achieving the desired ecological outcomes before proceeding to a field trial. Here we assessed the potential for population control to resolve a conflict of non-breeding swans grazing in river catchments. We used a mathematical model to evaluate the consequences of three population management strategies; (a) reductions in reproductive success, (b) removal of individuals, and © reduced reproductive success and removal of individuals combined. This model gave accurate projections of historical changes in population size for the two rivers for which data were available. Our model projected that the River Frome swan population would increase by 54%, from 257 to 397 individuals, over 17 years in the absence of population control. Removal of ≥60% of non-breeding individuals each year was projected to reduce the catchment population below the level for which grazing conflicts have been previously reported. Reducing reproductive success, even to 0 eggs per nest, failed to achieve the population reduction required. High adult and juvenile survival probabilities (>0.7) and immigration from outside of the catchment limited the effects of management on population size. Given the high, sustained effort required, population control does not represent an effective management option for preventing the grazing conflicts in river catchments. Our study highlights the need to evaluate the effects of different management techniques, both alone and in combination, prior to field trials. Population models, such as the one presented here, can provide a cost-effective and ethical means of such evaluations.

Concepts: Population, Population ecology, Predation, Redox, Herbivore, Grazing, Herbivory, Browsing