In grasslands remade by humans, animals may protect biodiversity: Grazers let in the light, rescue imperiled plants

A comparative study of grasslands on six continents suggests there may be a way to counteract the human-made overdose of fertilizer that threatens to permanently alter the biodiversity of the world’s native prairies.The solution is one that nature devised: let grazing animals crop the excess growth of fast growing grasses that can out-compete native plants in an over-fertilized world. And grazing works in a way that is also natural and simple. The herbivores, or grazing and browsing animals, feed on tall grasses that block sunlight from reaching the ground, making the light available to other plants.That’s the key finding of a five-year study carried out at 40 different sites around the world and scheduled for online publication March 9, 2014 in the journal Nature. More than 50 scientists belonging to the Nutrient Network, a team of scientists studying grasslands worldwide, co-authored the study.”This study has tremendous significance because human activities are changing grasslands everywhere,” said study co-author Daniel S. Gruner, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. “We’re over-fertilizing them, and we’re adding and subtracting herbivores. We have a worldwide experiment going on, but it’s completely uncontrolled.”Gruner, a member of the Nutrient Network (which participants have nicknamed NutNet) since its founding in 2006, helped plan the worldwide study and analyze its results. Elizabeth Borer of the University of Minnesota was the study’s lead author.The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that grasslands cover between one-fifth and two-fifths of the planet’s land area and are home to more than one-tenth of humankind. But like all plant communities, grasslands are suffering from too much fertilizer.As humans burn fossil fuels, dose crops with chemical fertilizers, and dispose of manure from livestock, they introduce extra nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil, air and water. …

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