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Global environmental controls of diversity in large herbivores


Large mammalian herbivores occupy half of the earth's land surface and are important both ecologically and economically1, but their diversity is threatened by human activities2. We investigated how the diversity of large herbivores changes across gradients of global precipitation and soil fertility. Here we show that more plant-available moisture reduces the nutrient content of plants but increases productivity, whereas more plant-available nutrients increase both of these factors. Because larger herbivore species tolerate lower plant nutrient content but require greater plant abundance, the highest potential herbivore diversity should occur in locations with intermediate moisture and high nutrients. These areas are dry enough to yield high quality plants and support smaller herbivores, but productive enough to support larger herbivores. These predictions fit with observed patterns of body size and diversity for large mammalian herbivores in North America, Africa and Australia, and yield a global map of regions with potentially high herbivore diversity. Thus, gradients of precipitation, temperature and soil fertility might explain the global distribution of large herbivore diversity and help to identify crucial areas for conservation and restoration.

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Figure 1: Plant biomass and tissue nitrogen content changes across rainfall gradients in Africa.
Figure 2: Predicted and observed patterns of herbivore diversity along gradients of plant-available moisture and nutrients.
Figure 3: Global distribution of large herbivore diversity, as predicted by indices for plant-available moisture and nutrients using a regression model obtained from data for African and North American parks.


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We thank E. S. Bakker, J. P. Bakker, W. J. Bond, F. S. Chapin III, G. E. Belovsky, S. J. McNaughton, D. Milchunas, N. Owen-Smith, F. J. Weissing and D. Tilman for comments; M. A. Huston for soil fertility data; and R. Leemans for temperature and rainfall data. Financial support was provided by the Dutch NWO (WOTRO and ALW), Wageningen University, the NSF, the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Utah State University Ecology Center.

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Correspondence to Han Olff.

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Olff, H., Ritchie, M. & Prins, H. Global environmental controls of diversity in large herbivores. Nature 415, 901–904 (2002).

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