How have animals shaped the world we live in today? A team of researchers at Wits University has reconstructed African wildlife populations from 1000 years ago to try and answer this question. “Using our understanding of African ecology… we went back and predicted how many animals there were of all these different species in the landscapes that are now so radically transformed,” says lead researcher Gareth Hempson.
Focusing on Africa, because it has fewer cases of extinction and more protected areas than other continents, the team used wildlife census data to build a picture of historical animal populations. “In a sense it’s like stepping into a time machine and traveling back to Africa as it was 1000 years ago,” Hempson said. “Ecosystems cannot be understood without including animals and their impact into their thinking.”
The study revealed four ecologically distinct “herbivory regimes”: forest antelopes, arid-region gazelles, high-diversity savannah fauna, and bulk feeders (such as elephants). These animals, the study says, “have had equivalent impact to those of fire and water on shaping ecosystems.”
The research has far-reaching applications, acting as a platform upon which scientists can start to answer new questions about animals and ecology. It can be used to examine current distributions of animals, to discover how livestock replacing wildlife populations changes ecology, and to understand the consequences are of these kinds of changes. Most important, however, is the ability to fit animals into ecosystem models used to predict where Earth is headed.