The extinction and decline in the populations of megafuana has damaged the planet's nutrient recycling system.
Earth once had giant animals like mammoths, sloths, mastodons and dinosaurs but over the centuries, we have lost many of those. The populations of modern oversized animals, like rhinos and whales have also decreased extensively in the past few decades. So has the large poop produced by them and it has a disruptive effect on ecosystems around the world.
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A new study suggests that these large-sized land and marine animals and seabirds are playing a vital role in keep the planet fertile and transporting nutrients from the depth of the oceans to deep inlands to the top of the mountains. But since many of the largest animals have gone extinct and experienced massive population declines, it is badly hurting the planet’s nutrient recycling system.
"This broken global cycle may weaken ecosystem health, fisheries, and agriculture.” Joe Roman, a biologist at the University of Vermont and co-author of the study said.
Science knows that animals do not poop where they eat and this makes them carry the nutrients with them and spread it where they go. Without this process, the nutrients end up resting on the ocean floor instead of being distributed around the world.
“We estimate that the capacity of animals to move nutrients away from concentration patches has decreased to about 8% of the preextinction value on land and about 5% of historic values in oceans.” Author wrote in the study.
The movement of Phosphorus, a key nutrient for plant growth, through marine mammals has reduced by 77% and from sea to land by seabird has decreased by 96% compared to what was in the past.
“Phosphorus is a key element in fertilizers and easily accessible phosphate supplies may run out in as little as fifty years," said co-author Chris Doughty. "Restoring populations of animals to their former bounty could help to recycle phosphorus from the sea to land, increasing global stocks of available phosphorus in the future.”
A complex array of forces including climate change and hunting drove megafuana to extinction. For example, whales are estimated to have declined by between 66% and 90% over the last three centuries due to commercial hunting. Most grievously, 350,000 blue whales used to inhabit oceans around the globe but only few thousands are left now.
"But recovery is possible and important," said Roman. Through better polices "We can imagine a world with relatively abundant whale populations again.”
The full study can be read here.
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