Keystone Species

Elephants are keystone species.

What is a keystone species?

A keystone species, such as the African and Asian elephant, is a species that has a particularly large effect on an environment relative to its abundance. 

Why are keystone species important?

Keystone species play crucial roles in maintaining ecological communities by affecting many other organisms within those ecosystems.  If a keystone species is removed, an ecosystem may experience dramatic population shifts, which could result in very negative consequences.  

How are African and Asian Elephants keystone species?

On the savannah, African elephants directly influence forest composition and density by pulling down trees, breaking up bushes, creating salt licks, digging waterholes, and forging trails.  In this way, the elephant maintains an environment that is favorable for a large assortment of browsing and grazing animals.  Many plant species have also evolved seeds that are dependent on passing through an elephant's digestive tract before they can germinate; it is estimated that at least a third of West African tree species rely on elephants for seed dispersal and germination.   

In the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, the Asian elephant is responsible for creating clearings and gaps in the canopy that
encourage tree regeneration.  Elephant feeding behavior frequently ensures that no one plant species is able to dominate the environment. By essentially engineering the plant and water systems around them, elephants not only affect plant ecosystems, but they also impact every other animal that depends on those plants, including carnivorous predators that prey on grazing herbivores.

Without elephants, habitats such as the African savannah and the Southeast Asian rain forest would look drastically different and wouldn't be able to support nearly as many different species as they do now.  Therefore, elephants play essential roles in maintaining biological diversity around the world!

Photographs provided with permission by Nidal Kram, Katie Van Marter-Sanders, Melissa Fox, and Grace Fox