Elephant Poop Matters

Most individuals understand that elephants are a delicate piece of the African ecosystem. However, elephant poop is especially valuable. 

This has long been common knowledge in Africa, where numerous studies have identified elephants as important dispersers of seeds for a vast variety of plants. Both forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and bush elephants (L. africana) eat numerous types of fruits and vegetables, digest what they can, and then drop the seeds out several hours (and often several miles) away from their original location. The seeds then sprout and grow, helping to keep the populations of forest plants healthy. Research has shown that as elephants continue to disappear, local forest suffer from the loss of this delicate seed-spreading mechanism. Some tree species face catastrophic declines as poachers continue to eliminate elephants from the ecosystem. It just goes to show that harming one species has a domino effect on the rest of it's environment. 

baby-elephant-pooping

It turns out that African elephants are not alone in this forest health role. New research finds that Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) fulfill much the same function, something that has not been widely studied until now.

Researchers from University of Hohenheim in Germany and other institutions tested this theory with a fruit common in the diet of elephants. Chulta, or elephant apple (Dillenia indica), is a native fruit found in Southeast Asia. A scientific trial conducted in Thailand involved feeding the bitter apples to six beautiful female elephants, all of which were rescued from previous lives as circus puppets (They loved the apples!)

chulta-elephant-apple

The researchers then followed the elephants, tracked how many hours it took for the apples to be defecated out, and collected the remains and used a sieve to retrieve the tiny seeds. After that monumental task they planted 1,200 elephant apple seeds, including some control seeds chopped directly out of the fruit, and found that those which had been consumed and partially digested by pachyderms had the highest germination success rates. The greater the time before the seeds were pooped out, the better they did. Elephant poop truly matters. The digested seeds also germinated significantly faster than those which had not first gone through an elephant’s intestinal track. This, the authors wrote, is crucially important because once the seeds are on the ground they can be eaten by other predators seeking a snack. The faster the seeds sprout, the more likely they are to survive and grow into more vegetation.

Why does this matter? Elephant apples aren’t going extinct yet, but they could be, as could other elephant-dependent Asian plants. As the authors note in their paper, “seed-dispersing frugivores are often the first animals to vanish from disturbed forests,” and that’s already starting to happen with Asian elephants, which have lost most of their historic ranges throughout Asia. As they continue to disappear, the plants that depend upon them for seed dispersal will begin to suffer. This, in turn, could affect all of the other species that also rely upon those plants for food or shelter, causing an unstable shift in local and worldwide ecosystems.

It all adds up, and quickly. As the authors conclude, “stringent protection will not only benefit the pachyderms themselves but also aid in conserving the habitat for a broad range of plant and other animal species, and ultimately sustaining the services such forests provide also for humankind.”

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