Assessing the effects of elephant foraging on the structure and diversity of an Afrotropical forest


African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are ecosystem engineers that browse and damage large quantities of vegetation during their foraging and movement. Though elephant trail networks and clearings are conspicuous features of many African forests, the consequences of elephant foraging for forest structure and diversity are poorly documented. In this study in northeastern Gabon, we compare stem size, stem density, proportional damage, species diversity, and species relative abundance of seedlings and saplings in the vicinity of seven tree species that produce elephant-preferred fruits (“elephant trees”) relative to control trees that do not. Across 34 survey trees, with a combined census area of 2.04 ha, we recorded data on 26,128 woody stems in three sizes classes. Compared with control trees, the area around elephant trees had the following: (a) a significantly greater proportion of damaged seedlings and a marginally greater proportion of damaged saplings (with 82% and 24% greater odds of damage, respectively); (b) no significant difference in stem density or species diversity; and (c) a significantly greater relative abundance of seedlings of elephant tree species. Increasing distance away from focal elephant trees was associated with significantly reduced sapling stem damage, significantly increased sapling stem density, and significantly increased sapling species diversity. Considered in sum, our results suggest that elephants can affect the structure and diversity of Afrotropical forests through their foraging activities, with some variation based on location and plant size class. Developing a more complete understanding of elephants’ ecological effects will require continued research, ideally with manipulative experiments. Abstract in French is available with online material.





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Publication Info

Rosin, Cooper, Kendall K Beals, Michael W Belovitch, Ruby E Harrison, Megan Pendred, Megan K Sullivan, Nicolas Yao, John R Poulsen, et al. (2020). Assessing the effects of elephant foraging on the structure and diversity of an Afrotropical forest. Biotropica, 52(3). pp. 502–508. 10.1111/btp.12758 Retrieved from

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John Poulsen

Associate Professor of Tropical Ecology

John Poulsen is an ecologist with broad interests in the maintenance and regeneration of tropical forests and conservation of biodiversity. His research has focused on the effects of anthropogenic disturbance, such as logging and hunting, on forest structure and diversity, abundance of tropical animals, and ecological processes. He has conducted most of his research in Central Africa, where he has also worked as a conservation manager, directing projects to sustainably manage natural resources in and around parks and reserves, and as the coordinator of government programs to develop low emissions strategies and quantify and monitor forest carbon.

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