Indirect effects of African megaherbivore conservation on bat diversity in the world’s oldest desert

In extreme environments, temperature and precipitation are often the main forces responsible for structuring ecological communities and species distributions. The role of biotic interactions is typically thought to be minimal. By clustering around rare and isolated features, like surface water, however, effects of herbivory by desert-dwelling wildlife can be amplified. Understanding how species interact in these environments is critical to safeguarding vulnerable or data-deficient species. We examined whether African elephants (Loxodonta africana), black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), and southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa) modulate insectivorous bat communities around permanent waterholes in the Namib Desert. We estimated megaherbivore use of sites based on dung transects, summarized vegetation productivity from satellite measurements of the normalized difference vegetation index, and surveyed local bat communities acoustically. We used structural equation models to identify relationships among megaherbivores and bat species richness and dry- (November 2016–January 2017) and wet- (February–May 2017) season bat activity. Site-level megaherbivore use in the dry season was positively associated with bat activity—particularly that of open-air foragers—and species richness through indirect pathways. When resources were more abundant (wet season), however, these relationships were weakened. Our results indicate that biotic interactions contribute to species distributions in desert areas and suggest the conservation of megaherbivores in this ecosystem may indirectly benefit insectivorous bat abundance and diversity. Given that how misunderstood and understudied most bats are relative to other mammals, such findings suggest that managers pursue short-term solutions (e.g., community game guard programs, water-point protection near human settlements, and ecotourism) to indirectly promote bat conservation and that research includes megaherbivores’ effects on biodiversity at other trophic levels.

Publish DateAugust 24, 2021
Last UpdatedAugust 24, 2021
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