Dissimilar effects of human and elephant disturbance on woodland structure and functional bird diversity in the mopane woodlands of Zambia

Hemant G. Tripathi*, Tiwonge I. Mzumara, Rowan O. Martin, Catherine L. Parr, Chaona Phiri, Casey M. Ryan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context: Humans and elephants are major disturbance agents in the African savanna woodlands. While both species remove trees, humans selectively harvest larger stems, which are less vulnerable to elephants. Increasing human pressures raise the question of how the altered disturbance regime will modify woodland structure, and in turn biodiversity and ecosystem function. Objectives: Here we investigate this process in the mopane woodlands of Zambia by examining relationships between woodland structure, species and functional bird diversity, and human and elephant disturbance intensity. Methods: We conducted a single-season comparison of 178 plots from 45 sites using Bayesian mixed models. Results: The effect of elephants on tree density (− 7.7 ± 1.6%; deviation from intercept) and bird species richness (− 15 ± 6%) was greater than that of humans (density: − 3.5 ± 1.5%; bird richness: − 11.6 ± 4.7%). Despite this, elephants did not significantly affect woody biomass or functional bird diversity, whereas humans had a negative effect on both (woody biomass: − 9.3 ± 2.3%; functional bird diversity: − 5 ± 2%). Elephants were associated with reductions in species and functional turnover (5.3 ± 2.5% and 6 ± 3%, respectively). Conclusions: Replacement of elephants by humans is likely to reduce woody biomass and functional bird diversity affecting the woodland structure, sustainability, and functioning. Concentrated elephant disturbance could lead to spatial homogeneity in bird species and functional compositions, potentially reducing the spatial resilience of bird communities. This is the first study to highlight how the difference between elephant and human disturbances leads to dissimilar effects on biodiversity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)357-371
Number of pages15
JournalLandscape ecology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2019


  • Alpha diversity
  • Bayesian mixed models
  • Beta diversity
  • Functional traits
  • Savanna woodlands


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