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Ecological consequences of Late Quaternary extinctions of megafauna.

ABSTRACT

Large herbivorous vertebrates have strong interactions with vegetation, affecting the structure, composition and dynamics of plant communities in many ways. Living large herbivores are a small remnant of the assemblages of giants that existed in most terrestrial ecosystems 50,000 years ago. The extinction of so many large herbivores may well have triggered large changes in plant communities. In several parts of the world, palaeoecological studies suggest that extinct megafauna once maintained vegetation openness, and in wooded landscapes created mosaics of different structural types of vegetation with high habitat and species diversity. Following megafaunal extinction, these habitats reverted to more dense and uniform formations. Megafaunal extinction also led to changes in fire regimes and increased fire frequency due to accumulation of uncropped plant material, but there is a great deal of variation in post-extinction changes in fire. Plant communities that once interacted with extinct large herbivores still contain many species with obsolete defences against browsing and non-functional adaptations for seed dispersal. Such plants may be in decline, and, as a result, many plant communities may be in various stages of a process of relaxation from megafauna-conditioned to megafauna-naive states. Understanding the past role of giant herbivores provides fundamental insight into the history, dynamics and conservation of contemporary plant communities.