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The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia


In the late Pleistocene, 97 genera of large animals went extinct, concentrated in the Americas and Australia1. These extinctions had significant effects on ecosystem structure2, seed dispersal3 and land surface albedo4. However, the impact of this dramatic extinction on ecosystem nutrient biogeochemistry, through the lateral transport of dung and bodies, has never been explored. Here we analyse this process using a novel mathematical framework that analyses this lateral transport as a diffusion-like process, and we demonstrate that large animals play a disproportionately large role in the horizontal transfer of nutrients across landscapes. For example, we estimate that the extinction of the Amazonian megafauna decreased the lateral flux of the limiting nutrient phosphorus by more than 98%, with similar, though less extreme, decreases in all continents outside of Africa. This resulted in strong decreases in phosphorus availability in eastern Amazonia away from fertile floodplains, a decline which may still be ongoing. The current P limitation in the Amazon basin may be partially a relic of an ecosystem without the functional connectivity it once had. We argue that the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions resulted in large and ongoing disruptions to terrestrial biogeochemical cycling at continental scales and increased nutrient heterogeneity globally.

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Figure 1: Megafauna extinctions in South America and their impact on Φ.
Figure 2: Calculation of the diffusion coefficient and the impact on continental averaged South American ecosystem P distribution.
Figure 3: Map showing changing ecosystem P concentrations in South America due to megafauna extinctions.

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We thank A. Barnosky and E. Gloor for comments as well as S. Levin, J. Murray and E. Lindsey for advice. C.E.D. was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Geocarbon. A.W. is supported by the Carbon Mitigation Initiative of the Princeton Environmental Institute. Y.M. is supported by the Jackson Foundation and an ERC Advanced Investigator grant.

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C.E.D. developed the original idea of the paper. C.E.D., Y.M. and A.W. developed the mathematical framework and C.E.D. and A.W. ran the models. C.E.D. led the writing of the paper with contributions from Y.M. and A.W.

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Correspondence to Christopher E. Doughty.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Doughty, C., Wolf, A. & Malhi, Y. The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia. Nature Geosci 6, 761–764 (2013).

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