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Lateral Diffusion of Nutrients by Mammalian Herbivores in Terrestrial Ecosystems

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Abstract

Animals translocate nutrients by consuming nutrients at one point and excreting them or dying at another location. Such lateral fluxes may be an important mechanism of nutrient supply in many ecosystems, but lack quantification and a systematic theoretical framework for their evaluation. This paper presents a mathematical framework for quantifying such fluxes in the context of mammalian herbivores. We develop an expression for lateral diffusion of a nutrient, where the diffusivity is a biologically determined parameter depending on the characteristics of mammals occupying the domain, including size-dependent phenomena such as day range, metabolic demand, food passage time, and population size. Three findings stand out: (a) Scaling law-derived estimates of diffusion parameters are comparable to estimates calculated from estimates of each coefficient gathered from primary literature. (b) The diffusion term due to transport of nutrients in dung is orders of magnitude large than the coefficient representing nutrients in bodymass. (c) The scaling coefficients show that large herbivores make a disproportionate contribution to lateral nutrient transfer. We apply the diffusion equation to a case study of Kruger National Park to estimate the conditions under which mammal-driven nutrient transport is comparable in magnitude to other (abiotic) nutrient fluxes (inputs and losses). Finally, a global analysis of mammalian herbivore transport is presented, using a comprehensive database of contemporary animal distributions. We show that continents vary greatly in terms of the importance of animal-driven nutrient fluxes, and also that perturbations to nutrient cycles are potentially quite large if threatened large herbivores are driven to extinction. © 2013 Wolf et al.

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Wolf, A., Doughty, C. E., & Malhi, Y. (2013). Lateral Diffusion of Nutrients by Mammalian Herbivores in Terrestrial Ecosystems. PLoS ONE, 8(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0071352

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