Animals and the Zoogeochemistry of the Carbon Cycle

December 11, 2018

In a new paper published in Science, a team of researchers led by Yale’s Oswald Schmitz argue that wild animals can alter a landscape’s capacity to absorb, release, or transport carbon. The study is an important contribution to international climate and biodiversity initiatives that require better resolution of how biodiversity effects on ecosystem structure and biogeochemical functioning will become altered by global change.

Forecasting and managing the global carbon cycle requires scientific understanding of ecosystem processes that control carbon uptake and storage. Carbon cycling is generally characterized in terms of uptake and exchange between ecosystem plant and soil pools and the atmosphere. Schmitz et al. show that animals also mediate carbon exchange between ecosystems and the atmosphere, turning ecosystem carbon sources into sinks, or vice versa. As animals move across landscapes, they create a dynamism that shapes landscape-scale variation in carbon exchange and storage.

The paper explains how to link analyses of spatial ecosystem functioning, animal movement, and remote sensing of animal habitats with carbon dynamics across landscapes and describes advances in remote-sensing capabilities and new geospatial statistical methods that offer the means to understand and predict how zoogeochemical-driven landscape processes regulate spatial patterns in carbon distribution.

Schmitz et al. show that zoogeochemical effects can control ecosystem carbon storage and exchange across broad landscapes and conclude that animals should be considered as an integral part of the portfolio of natural carbon-recapture solutions.

 “Some of us have been saying for a long time that it’s not just animal abundance that matters but what these animals do that is important. We’re finally to the point that there’s some pretty strong evidence to support these ideas.”

— Oswald J. Schmitz, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

The original paper: Schmitz, Oswald J.; Christopher C. Wilmers; Shawn J. Leroux; Christopher E. Doughty; Trisha B. Atwood; Mauro Galetti; Andrew B. Davies; and Scott J. Goetz. 2018. “Animals and the zoogeochemistry of the carbon cycle. Science 07 Dec 2018:Vol. 362, Issue 6419. Read the paper here.

Professor Schmitz is teaching EVST 273, Ecology and the Future of Life on Earth, this spring.