Elephant megacarcasses increase local nutrient pools in African savanna soils and plants

Reed, Courtney G.; Budny, Michelle L.; du Toit, Johan T.; Helcoski, Ryan; Schimel, Joshua P.; Smit, Izak P. J.; Strydom, Tercia; Tallian, Aimee; Thompson, Dave I.; van Coller, Helga; Lemoine, Nathan P.; Burkepile, Deron E.

African elephants ( Loxodonta africana) are the largest extant terrestrial mammals, with bodies containing enormous quantities of nutrients. Yet we know little about how these nutrients move through the ecosystem after an elephant dies. Here, we investigated the initial effects (1–26 months post-death) of elephant megacarcasses on savanna soil and plant nutrient pools in Kruger National Park, South Africa. We hypothesized that: (H1) elephant megacarcass decomposition would release nutrients into soil, resulting in higher concentrations of soil nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and micronutrients near the center of carcass sites; (H2) carbon (C) inputs to the soil would stimulate microbial activity, resulting in increased soil respiration potential near the center of carcass sites; and (H3) carcass-derived nutrients would move from soil into plants, resulting in higher foliar nutrient concentrations near the center of carcass sites. To test our hypotheses, we identified 10 elephant carcass sites split evenly between nutrient-poor granitic and nutrient-rich basaltic soils. At each site, we ran transects in the four cardinal directions from the center of the gravesite, collecting soil and grass ( Urochloa mosambicensis) samples at 0, 2.5, 5, 10, and 15 m. We then analyzed samples for CNP and micronutrient concentrations and quantified soil microbial respiration potential. We found that concentrations of soil nitrate, ammonium, 15N, P, sodium, and potassium were elevated closer to the center of carcass sites (H1). Microbial respiration potentials were positively correlated with soil organic C, and both respiration and organic C decreased with distance from the carcass (H2). Finally, we found evidence that plants were readily absorbing carcass-derived nutrients from the soil, with foliar %N, 15N, iron, potassium, and sodium significantly elevated closer to the center of carcass sites (H3). Together, these results indicate that elephant megacarcasses release ecologically consequential pulses of nutrients into the soil, which then move into above-ground nutrient pools in plants. These localized nutrient pulses may drive spatiotemporal heterogeneity in plant diversity, herbivore behavior, and ecosystem processes.

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Reed, Courtney G. / Budny, Michelle L. / du Toit, Johan T. / et al: Elephant megacarcasses increase local nutrient pools in African savanna soils and plants. 2024. Copernicus Publications.

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