As the largest land mammal, elephants play an important role in balancing the natural ecosystem. Elephants are therefore known as a “keystone species”. Keystone species are those that provide vital ecosystem services which are essential for the survival of other species in the ecosystem. Without these keystone species, the ecosystem would be negatively affected or cease to exist.

So how do elephants contribute to the ecosystem and why are they important to an ecosystem?

Elephants create small waterholes during drought periods

When water becomes scarce, elephants create small waterholes when they dig to access underground water. They use their feet and trunks to create holes in the ground to access the water. These elephant-made watering holes are then available to elephants as well as smaller animals who may not have been able to access water in times of drought. 

Elephants are seed transporters 

When elephants travel to different areas they disperse seeds in their dung. This helps to generate new plant growth as seeds are dispersed meters away from where the plant was initially eaten. Some studies have suggested that elephants can disperse seeds over distances of more than 60 kilometres (approximately 37,2 miles)! Elephant dung is rich in nutrients which makes it the perfect fertilizer. This allows seeds to germinate and grow. The seed dispersal allows for new plant growth which eventually creates new habitats and food for other species. 

Elephant keystone species - Elephants walking

They provide food for other species and help other species survive

Elephant dung also creates a food source for dung beetles. Once dung beetles find a fresh pile of dung, they feed on the nutritious solids and fluids contained in the dung. Dung beetles also lay their eggs in the dung balls that they roll. They will then bury these dung balls underground where their larvae can feed and grow. When they bury their dung balls, the dung beetles loosen the tightly packed soil and dig to the layer of soil where plants begin to grow. 

The cycle continues when mice and honey badgers feed off the submerged beetle larvae. Elephants, therefore support the survival of the dung beetle population but also assist with the survival of other species such as the honey badger. 

Many people do not think of the dung beetle as a creature that is important to the ecosystem. Although this creature is only a small part of the ecosystem, it is vital at keeping the dung at manageable levels. If dung beetles did not have their food supply from the elephants and they did not exist, the absence would be noticeable. 

Elephant keystone species - Dung Beetle

Elephants modify their environments

There is not much that can stand in an elephants way and we often think of them as being destructive creatures when they break down branches and push trees over. This “destructive’’ nature is however vital for the environment and other species. The trees and branches that they push over may not have been accessible to smaller animals so this helps to ensure that smaller wildlife have access to food. When elephants push down trees to feed, they create habitats for smaller species of animals. These fallen trees create smaller, micro-habitats for species like lizards and spiders which enables smaller species to co-exist together. 

When they push over trees and trample over vegetation, they create clearings that allow more light to reach the ground thereby helping low-lying plants to grow and thrive. This also maintains plains and open areas which we refer to as the Savannah biome and enables plains game such as antelope, zebra and buffalo to have access to quality grasses that they prefer.

Elephant keystone species - Zebra on the plains
Elephant keystone species - Buffalo grazing

As one can tell. Elephants play a vital role in the ecosystem and without these animals, the ecosystem would not thrive. It is clear that the presence of elephants benefits the fauna and flora in an ecosystem. Conservation programmes and game reserves that protect elephants are in essence not only looking out for the elephants themselves but also for the plants and animals that depend on them too.

In search of more reading? Here’s understanding elephant empathy and their emotions!

UNDERSTANDING ELEPHANT EMPATHY AND THEIR EMOTIONS