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Concept: Keystone species


Kelp forests (Order Laminariales) form key biogenic habitats in coastal regions of temperate and Arctic seas worldwide, providing ecosystem services valued in the range of billions of dollars annually. Although local evidence suggests that kelp forests are increasingly threatened by a variety of stressors, no comprehensive global analysis of change in kelp abundances currently exists. Here, we build and analyze a global database of kelp time series spanning the past half-century to assess regional and global trends in kelp abundances. We detected a high degree of geographic variation in trends, with regional variability in the direction and magnitude of change far exceeding a small global average decline (instantaneous rate of change = -0.018 y(-1)). Our analysis identified declines in 38% of ecoregions for which there are data (-0.015 to -0.18 y(-1)), increases in 27% of ecoregions (0.015 to 0.11 y(-1)), and no detectable change in 35% of ecoregions. These spatially variable trajectories reflected regional differences in the drivers of change, uncertainty in some regions owing to poor spatial and temporal data coverage, and the dynamic nature of kelp populations. We conclude that although global drivers could be affecting kelp forests at multiple scales, local stressors and regional variation in the effects of these drivers dominate kelp dynamics, in contrast to many other marine and terrestrial foundation species.

Concepts: Algae, Time, Ecosystem, Forest, Kelp, Kelp forest, Macrocystis, Keystone species


Beavers are the archetypal keystone species, which can profoundly alter ecosystem structure and function through their ecosystem engineering activity, most notably the building of dams. This can have a major impact upon water resource management, flow regimes and water quality. Previous research has predominantly focused on the activities of North American beaver (Castor canadensis) located in very different environments, to the intensive lowland agricultural landscapes of the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. Two Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were introduced to a wooded site, situated on a first order tributary, draining from intensively managed grassland. The site was monitored to understand impacts upon water storage, flow regimes and water quality. Results indicated that beaver activity, primarily via the creation of 13 dams, has increased water storage within the site (holding ca. 1000m(3) in beaver ponds) and beavers were likely to have had a significant flow attenuation impact, as determined from peak discharges (mean 30±19% reduction), total discharges (mean 34±9% reduction) and peak rainfall to peak discharge lag times (mean 29±21% increase) during storm events. Event monitoring of water entering and leaving the site showed lower concentrations of suspended sediment, nitrogen and phosphate leaving the site (e.g. for suspended sediment; average entering site: 112±72mgl(-1), average leaving site: 39±37mgl(-1)). Combined with attenuated flows, this resulted in lower diffuse pollutant loads in water downstream. Conversely, dissolved organic carbon concentrations and loads downstream were higher. These observed changes are argued to be directly attributable to beaver activity at the site which has created a diverse wetland environment, reducing downstream hydrological connectivity. Results have important implications for beaver reintroduction programs which may provide nature based solutions to the catchment-scale water resource management issues that are faced in agricultural landscapes.

Concepts: Hydrology, Beaver, European Beaver, Beavers, Castoreum, Fur trade, North American Beaver, Keystone species


The late Pleistocene extinction of so many large-bodied vertebrates has been variously attributed to two general causes: rapid climate change and the effects of humans as they spread from the Old World to previously uninhabited continents and islands. Many large-bodied vertebrates, especially large apex predators, maintain their associated ecosystems through top-down forcing processes, especially trophic cascades, and megaherbivores also exert an array of strong indirect effects on their communities. Thus, a third possibility for at least some of the Pleistocene extinctions is that they occurred through habitat changes resulting from the loss of these other keystone species. Here we explore the plausibility of this mechanism, using information on sea otters, kelp forests, and the recent extinction of Steller’s sea cows from the Commander Islands. Large numbers of sea cows occurred in the Commander Islands at the time of their discovery by Europeans in 1741. Although extinction of these last remaining sea cows during early years of the Pacific maritime fur trade is widely thought to be a consequence of direct human overkill, we show that it is also a probable consequence of the loss of sea otters and the co-occurring loss of kelp, even if not a single sea cow had been killed directly by humans. This example supports the hypothesis that the directly caused extinctions of a few large vertebrates in the late Pleistocene may have resulted in the coextinction of numerous other species.

Concepts: Human, Mammal, Apex predator, Pleistocene, Megafauna, Sea otter, Sirenia, Keystone species


Large carnivores such as jaguars (Panthera onca) are species of conservation concern because they are suffering population declines and are keystone species in their ecosystems. Their large area requirements imply that unprotected and ever-increasing agricultural regions can be important habitats as they allow connectivity and dispersal among core protected areas. Yet information on jaguar densities across unprotected landscapes it is still scarce and crucially needed to assist management and range-wide conservation strategies. Our study provides the first jaguar density estimates of Colombia in agricultural regions which included cattle ranching, the main land use in the country, and oil palm cultivation, an increasing land use across the Neotropics. We used camera trapping across two agricultural landscapes located in the Magdalena River valley and in the Colombian llanos (47-53 stations respectively; >2000 trap nights at both sites) and classic and spatially explicit capture-recapture models with the sex of individuals as a covariate. Density estimates were 2.52±0.46-3.15±1.08 adults/100 km2 in the Magdalena valley, whereas 1.12±0.13-2.19±0.99 adults/100 km2 in the Colombian llanos, depending on analysis used. We suggest that jaguars are able to live across unprotected human-use areas and co-exist with agricultural landscapes including oil-palm plantations if natural areas and riparian habitats persist in the landscape and hunting of both jaguar and prey is limited. In the face of an expanding agriculture across the tropics we recommend land-use planning, adequate incentives, regulations, and good agricultural practices for range-wide jaguar connectivity and survival.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Colombia, Panthera, Jaguar, Magdalena River, Keystone species, Magdalena River Valley


Establishing true phylogenetic relationships between populations is a critical consideration when sourcing individuals for translocation. This presents huge difficulties with threatened and endangered species that have become extirpated from large areas of their former range. We utilise ancient DNA (aDNA) to reconstruct the phylogenetic relationships of a keystone species which has become extinct in Britain, the Eurasian beaver Castor fiber. We sequenced seventeen 492 bp partial tRNAPro and control region sequences from Late Pleistocene and Holocene age beavers and included these in network, demographic and genealogy analyses. The mode of postglacial population expansion from refugia was investigated by employing tests of neutrality and a pairwise mismatch distribution analysis. We found evidence of a pre-Late Glacial Maximum ancestor for the Western C. fiber clade which experienced a rapid demographic expansion during the terminal Pleistocene to early Holocene period. Ancient British beavers were found to originate from the Western phylogroup but showed no phylogenetic affinity to any one modern relict population over another. Instead, we find that they formed part of a large, continuous, pan-Western European clade that harbored little internal substructure. Our study highlights the utility of aDNA in reconstructing population histories of extirpated species which has real-world implications for conservation planning.

Concepts: Biology, Species, Phylogenetic tree, Beaver, Holocene, European Beaver, Beavers, Keystone species


Anthropogenic impacts on North American grasslands, a highly endangered ecosystem, have led to declines of prairie dogs, a keystone species, over 98% of their historical range. While impacts of this loss on maintenance of grassland biodiversity have been widely documented, much less is known about the consequences on the supply of ecosystem services. Here we assessed the effect of prairie dogs in the supply of five ecosystem services by comparing grasslands currently occupied by prairie dogs, grasslands devoid of prairie dogs, and areas that used to be occupied by prairie dogs that are currently dominated by mesquite scrub. Groundwater recharge, regulation of soil erosion, regulation of soil productive potential, soil carbon storage and forage availability were consistently quantitatively or qualitatively higher in prairie dog grasslands relative to grasslands or mesquite scrub. Our findings indicate a severe loss of ecosystem services associated to the absence of prairie dogs. These findings suggest that contrary to a much publicize perception, especially in the US, prairie dogs are fundamental in maintaining grasslands and their decline have strong negative impacts in human well - being through the loss of ecosystem services.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Soil, Ecosystem, Erosion, Grassland, Steppe, Prairie dog, Keystone species


The presence of keystone species can influence disease dynamics through changes in species diversity and composition of vector and host communities. In this study, we compared 1) the diversity of small mammals; 2) the prevalence, abundance, and intensity of arthropod vectors; and 3) the prevalence of Yersinia pestis, Francisella tularensis, and Bartonella spp. in vectors, between two grassland communities of northern Sonora, Mexico, one with (La Mesa [LM]) and one without (Los Fresnos [LF]) black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). The mammal community in LF exhibited higher species richness and diversity than LM, and species composition was different between the two communities. Flea species richness, prevalence, abundance, and intensity, were higher in LM than in LF. The most abundant fleas were Oropsylla hirsuta and Pulex simulans, and C. ludovicianus was the host with the highest flea intensity and richness. There was no serologic evidence for the presence of Y. pestis and F. tularensis in any community, but Bartonella spp. was present in 18% of the total samples. Some specificity was observed between Bartonella species, flea species, and mammal species. Although prairie dogs can indirectly affect the diversity and abundance of hosts and vectors, dynamics of vector-borne diseases at these spatial and temporal scales may be more dependent on the vector and pathogen specificity.

Concepts: Flea, Pathogen, Mammal, Grassland, Yersinia pestis, Species richness, Prairie dog, Keystone species


Given climate change, species' climatically suitable habitats are increasingly expected to shift poleward. Some imperiled populations towards the poleward edge of their species' range might therefore conceivably benefit from climate change. Interactions between climate and population dynamics may be complex, however, with climate exerting effects both indirectly via influence over food availability and more directly, via effects on physiology and its implications for survival and reproduction. A thorough understanding of these interactions is critical for effective conservation management. We therefore examine the relationship between climate, survival and reproduction in Canadian black-tailed prairie dogs, a threatened keystone species in an imperiled ecosystem at the northern edge of the species' range. Our analyses considered eight years of annual mark-recapture data (2007 - 2014) in relation to growing degree days, precipitation, drought status and winter severity, as well as year, sex, age, and body mass. Survival was strongly influenced by the interaction of drought and body mass class and winter temperature severity. Female reproductive status was associated with the interaction of growing degree days and growing season precipitation, with spring precipitation and with winter temperature severity. Results related to body mass suggested that climatic variables exerted their effects via regulation of food availability with potential linked effects of food quality, immunological and behavioural implications, and predation risk. Predictions of future increases in drought conditions in North America’s grassland ecosystems has raised concerns for the outlook of Canadian black-tailed prairie dogs. Insights gained from the analyses, however, point to mitigating species management options targeted at decoupling the mechanisms by which climate exerts its negative influence. Our approach highlights the importance of understanding the interaction between climate and population dynamics in peripheral populations whose viability might ultimately determine their species' ability to track climatically suitable space. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Demography, Precipitation, Climate, Ecosystem, Meteorology, Grassland, Prairie dog, Keystone species


Leptospires are widespread spirochete bacteria that infect mammals, including rodents and humans. We investigated the presence of Leptospira antibodies in two species of rodents from San Pedro River Basin (SPRB) in northwestern Mexico as part of the black-tailed prairie dog ( Cynomys ludovicianus ) monitoring plan and the North American beaver ( Castor canadensis ) reintroduction program. We sampled a total of 26 black-tailed prairie dogs and three beavers during October-November 2015. We detected antibodies against Leptospira spp. by microagglutination test in 12 (46%) prairie dogs and in two (67%) beavers. The antibody titers for seropositive rodents varied from 1:100 to 1:200, but none of the animals showed clinical signs of disease. We found seven Leptospira spp. serogroups (Autumnalis, Australis, Bataviae, Canicola, Celledoni, Grippotyphosa, and Sejroe) circulating in rodent species in SPRB. We did not find any differences between sex and age concerning Leptospira-positive rodents. Our findings suggest the presence of endemic cycles and potential risks of Leptospira infection in both species from SPRB. Although the impact of this infection on threatened species remains unclear, human activities and environmental stress might facilitate the emergence or reemergence of leptospirosis disease as has been reported elsewhere.

Concepts: Mammal, Rodent, Beaver, Leptospira, Squirrel, Prairie dog, North American Beaver, Keystone species


There are many locations in Russia where Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) populations have been restored. As a keystone species, beavers provide wide-ranging direct and indirect impacts on aquatic ecosystems. In particular, beaver-created ponds are sites for spawning and nursery places for tadpoles of the brown frog (genus Rana). Because of such impacts, study techniques for assessing aquatic organisms abundance are being developed. We compared two methods for estimating tadpole abundance: traditional catches by dipnet and electrofishing. Our results show that the dipnet catch data of the shallower ponds with larger water surface area were five times lower than that obtained by electrofishing. Therefore, we conclude that dipnet catches are not suitable for comparing the relative abundance of tadpoles in the two beaver ponds that were studied. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Species, Beaver, Amphibian, Frog, Tadpole, European Beaver, Beavers, Keystone species