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Understanding introduced megafauna in the Anthropocene: wild burros as ecosystem engineers in the Sonoran Desert

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Megafauna species worldwide have undergone dramatic declines since the end of the Pleistocene, twelve thousand years ago. In response, there have been numerous calls to increase conservation attention to these

Megafauna species worldwide have undergone dramatic declines since the end of the Pleistocene, twelve thousand years ago. In response, there have been numerous calls to increase conservation attention to these ecologically important species. However, introduced megafauna continue to be treated as pests. This thesis evaluates the extent of this conservation paradox in relation to changing megafauna diversity from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene and finds that introductions have provided refuge for a substantial number threatened and endangered megafaunal species and has restored generic diversity levels per continent to levels closer to the Pleistocene than the Holocene. Furthermore, this thesis describes a previously unstudied behavior of wild burros (Equus asinus), an introduced megafauna whose pre-domestic ancestors are Critically Endangered. Wild burros dig wells to access groundwater and in doing so substantially increase water availability on several scales, create sites that are visited by numerous species and are comparable to natural water sources in terms of species richness, and provide germination nurseries for important riparian pioneer plant species. My results suggest that relaxing concepts of nativity in an age of extinction will provide new understandings of ecological function and can help focus attention on broader conservation goals.

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Date Created
  • 2017

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The pika and the watershed

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As much as 40% of the world's human population relies on rivers which originate on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP) (Xu et al. 2009, Immerzeel et al. 2010). However, the high

As much as 40% of the world's human population relies on rivers which originate on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP) (Xu et al. 2009, Immerzeel et al. 2010). However, the high alpine grasslands where these rivers emanate are at a crossroads. Fed by seasonal monsoon rains and glacial runoff, these rivers' frequent flooding contributes to massive losses of life and property downstream (Varis et al. 2012). Additionally, upstream grasslands, which regulate the flow of these rivers, are considered to be deteriorating (Harris 2010). This thesis examines the regional vulnerability of these rivers and highlights the impacts of several policy responses, finding that both climate change and grassland degradation pose significant challenges to Asia's water security. Additionally, I suggest that many of the responses elicited by policy makers to meet these challenges have failed. One of these policies has been the poisoning of a small, endemic, burrowing mammal and keystone species, the plateau pika (Ochotona curzoniae) (Smith and Foggin 1999). Contrary to their putative classification as a pest (Fan et al. 1999), I show that the plateau pika is instead an ecosystem engineer that actively increases the infiltration rate of water on the QTP with concomitant benefits to both local ecosystems and downstream hydrological processes.

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Date Created
  • 2012