Elephant-induced structural changes in the vegetation and habitat selection by large herbivores in an African savanna

African elephants can affect the quality of the habitat of other species by breaking or uprooting trees and shrubs in savannas. Their effect on vegetation has been widely studied but less is known about the effects of such vegetation changes on other animals. We studied how changes in the vegetation caused by elephants influence the selection of microhabitats by five African herbivore species (giraffe, kudu, steenbok, impala, and zebra) in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. There was no clear significant effect of overall elephant-induced vegetation changes on microhabitat selection except for the small species (steenbok and impala) that used vegetation modified by elephants preferentially. This is consistent with a medium-term browsing facilitation hypothesis. More subtle possible effects were detected for larger browsers (giraffe and kudu). They selected areas with broken and uprooted plants and avoided coppiced areas. All of the browsers selected sites characterized by plants uprooted and broken by elephants, which were associated with a higher visibility, and ultimately a better probability of detecting an approaching predator, suggesting that perceived predation risk plays an important role in microhabitat selection. These results illustrate how elephants can initiate indirect effects that influence microhabitat selection by other herbivores. Understanding the indirect effects of elephants through changes in food availability and predation risk thus needs further investigation. The results of this study do not provide support for the hypothesis that elephant-induced changes in the structure of habitats have caused the declines in the populations of the other herbivores in the study area.

Last Updated
January 26, 2021
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