The impact of the megafauna extinctions on savanna woody cover in South America

Christopher E. Doughty, Søren Faurby, Jens Christian Svenning

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Has land surface cover in South America been impacted by the loss of most large herbivores following the severe Pleistocene and Early Holocene megafauna extinctions on this continent? Here, we estimate how mean savanna woody biomass may have changed in the Americas following these extinctions by creating an empirical model to understand how large herbivores impact savanna woody biomass. To create this empirical model, we combine a large recently published dataset of savanna woody cover from Lehmann et al. (2014) (n = 2154 plots) with estimates of mammals ranges and weights from the IUCN database. We evaluate how variables such as number of megaherbivores (mammal species ≥ 1000 kg), log10 sum species weights, and total number of mammal species predict changes to woody cover by using both ordinary least squares regression analysis (OLS) and simultaneous auto-regressive (SAR) analysis to control for spatial autocorrelation. Both number of megaherbivores and log10 sum species weights, which both disproportionately weight for megaherbivores, significantly explained much (∼ 5-13%) variance in woody cover, but the third variable weighting all animals equally, did not. We then combined these biotic variables with abiotic variables such as temperature, precipitation, and fire frequency to create a model predicting 36% of the variance of savanna woody cover. We used this model combined with estimated range maps of extinct South American megafauna to estimate that had those South American megafauna not gone extinct, total savanna woody cover in South America could possibly have decreased by ∼ 29% and that savannas would likely have been more open like current African savannas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-222
Number of pages10
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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