Decline in animal 'poop' threatens our food supply

Credit: Diagram from PNAS; designed by Renate Helmiss

This diagram shows an interlinked system of animals that carry nutrients
from ocean depths to deep inland -- through their poop, urine, and,
upon death, decomposing bodies. A new study in the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences reports that -- in the past -- this
chain of whales, seabirds, migratory fish and large land mammals
transported far greater amounts of nutrients than they do today. Here,
the red arrows show the estimated amounts of phosphorus and other
nutrients that were moved or diffused historically -- and how much
these flows have been reduced today. Grey animals represent extinct
or reduced densities of animal populations.
If the world's food chain collapses. . . if.  What would the effects be on your characters?  

It is said that our civilized behavior only runs skin deep.  Given the choice between starvation and access to food and water, what would your characters do?  How would a global food system collapse effect a love story. . . if a character had to choose between eating and watching a loved-one starve?  

There are so many questions to ask and for writers to answer in their fiction.

If the world's food chain collapses. . . then?
*  *  *  *  *

Declines in whales, fish, seabirds and large
animals disrupt Earth's nutrient cycle

Giants once roamed the earth. Oceans teemed with ninety-foot-long whales. Huge land animals -- like truck-sized sloths and ten-ton mammoths -- ate vast quantities of food, and, yes, deposited vast quantities of poop.

In the past, whales, giant land mammals, and other animals played a vital role in keeping the planet fertile by transporting nutrients via their feces. However, massive declines and extinctions of many of these animals has deeply damaged this planetary nutrient recycling system, threatening fisheries and ecosystems on land, a team of scientists reports.

A new study shows that these whales and out-sized land mammals -- as well as seabirds and migrating fish -- played a vital role in keeping the planet fertile by transporting nutrients from ocean depths and spreading them across seas, up rivers, and deep inland, even to mountaintops.

However, massive declines and extinctions of many of these animals has deeply damaged this planetary nutrient recycling system.  "This broken global cycle may weaken ecosystem health, fisheries, and agriculture," says Joe Roman, a biologist at the University of Vermont and co-author on the new study.

On land, the capacity of animals to carry nutrients away from concentrated "hot-spots," the team writes, has plummeted to eight percent of what it was in the past--before the extinction of some 150 species of mammal megafauna at the end of the last ice age.

And, largely because of human hunting over the last few centuries, the capacity of whales, and other marine mammals, to move one vital nutrient -- phosphorus -- from deep ocean waters to the surface has been reduced by more than seventy-five percent, the new study shows.

Ignoring Animals
"Previously, animals were not thought to play an important role in nutrient movement," said lead author Christopher Doughty, an ecologist at the University of Oxford.

But the new study shows that animals are a crucial "distribution pump," the scientists write, transporting masses of fecal matter to fertilize many places that would otherwise be less productive, including ocean surface waters and the interior of continents.

These fertilized ecosystems, in turn, maintain natural functions vital to people. For example, the new study notes that restoring whale populations could help increase the ocean's capacity to absorb climate-warming carbon dioxide.

Traditionally, scientists studying nutrient cycling have focused on weathering of rocks and nitrogen collection by bacteria -- largely ignoring animals. This view assumed that the role of animals was minor, and mostly that of a passive consumer of nutrients. "However, this notion may be a peculiar world view that comes from living in an age where the number and size of animals have been drastically reduced from their former bounty," the team of nine scientists write.

"This study challenges the bottom-up bias that some scientists have--that microbes are running the show, and phytoplankton and plants are all that matter," says Joe Roman, a whale expert in UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.

"This once was a world that had

  • ten times more whales; 
  • twenty times more anadromous fish, like salmon; 
  • double the number of seabirds; and 
  • ten times more large herbivores--giant sloths and mastodons and mammoths," says Roman.

On land, before the rise of modern humans, there were elephant-like gomphotheres the size of a backhoe, deer with twelve-foot wide antlers, and bison herds to the horizon. These were just a few of the huge animals that could eat huge amounts of plant matter, accelerating the release of nutrients through digestion and carrying these nutrients away from feeding areas to higher ground through their deposit of feces, urine and, upon death, decomposing bodies.

Meet the gomphothere: UA archaeologist involved in discovery of bones of elephant ancestor
Credit: Sergio de la Rosa - 

These sculptures by Mexican artist Sergio de la Rosa, show three elephant 
ancestors: (left to right) the mastodon, the mammoth and the gomphothere. 
Gomphotheres were a diverse family of extinct, superficially elephant-like
proboscideans widespread in North America during the Miocene and
Pliocene epochs, 12–1.6 million years ago. (Source: & Wikipedia)
Overall, the scientists calculate that this animal-powered, planetary pump may have dropped to just six percent of its former capacity to spread nutrients away from concentrated sources on both land and sea.

Whale Work
A series of recent studies show that large animals appear to disproportionately drive nutrient movements. To make their new study, the team -- including scientists from University of Oxford, University of Vermont, Harvard University, Aarhus University in Denmark, Princeton University, Netherlands Institute of Ecology, and Purdue University -- used these findings and other existing data about historic and current animal populations. Then they applied a set of mathematical models to estimate the movement of nutrients vertically in the oceans and across the land -- and how this movement changed with extinctions and declining animal populations.

For example, whale densities are estimated to have declined by between 66% and 90% over the last three centuries due to commercial hunting, the study notes. Most grievously, 350,000 blue whales, many over one hundred tons, used to inhabit oceans around the globe. Only a few thousand now remain. These and other great whales feed in the depths -- and then defecate at the sun-lit surface "in a flocculent, liquidy cloud," says Roman.

Limited Phosphorus
In particular, the new study examined phosphorus, a nutrient critical for plant growth. Prior to the era of commercial hunting, the scientists estimate that whales and other marine mammals annually moved around 750 million pounds of phosphorus from the depths to the surface. Now that figure is about 165 million pounds--some 23% of former capacity.

The team also gathered data on seabird and fish populations that feed in the sea and then come onto land--like ocean-going salmon that move up rivers to defecate, spawn, and die. Movements by these birds and fish once carried more than 300 million pounds of phosphorus onto land each year, but that number has declined to less than four percent of past values as a result of destroyed seabird colonies, habitat loss, and over-fishing.

"Phosphorus is a key element in fertilizers and easily accessible phosphate supplies may run out in as little as fifty years," says Oxford's Chris Doughty. "Restoring populations of animals to their former bounty could help to recycle phosphorus from the sea to land, increasing global stocks of available phosphorus in the future."

The world of giants came to an end on land after the megafauna extinctions that began some 12,000 years ago -- driven by a complex array of forces including climate change and Neolithic hunters. And it ended in the oceans in the wake of whale and other mammal hunting in the industrial era of humans.

"But recovery is possible and important," says UVM's Roman. He points to bison as an example. "That's achievable. It might be a challenge policy-wise, but it's certainly within our power to bring back herds of bison to North America. That's one way we could restore an essential nutrient pathway."

And many whale and marine mammal populations are also recovering, Roman notes. "We can imagine a world with relatively abundant whale populations again," he says.

But have domestic animals, like cows, taken over the nutrient distribution role of now-extinct large land animals? No, the new study shows. Though there are many cows, fences constrain the movement of domestic animals and their nutrients. "Future pastures could be set up with fewer fences and with a wider range of species," the team writes.

"The typical flow of nutrients is down mountains to the oceans," says Joe Roman. "We are looking at ways that nutrients can go in the other direction--and that's largely through foraging animals. They're bringing nutrients from the deep sea that could eventually reach a mountain in British Columbia."

Related stories:
Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Vermont.  Christopher E. Doughty, Joe Roman, Søren Faurby, Adam Wolf, Alifa Haque, Elisabeth S. Bakker, Yadvinder Malhi, John B. Dunning Jr., and Jens-Christian Svenning. Global nutrient transport in a world of giants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), October 26, 2015.


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