Large mammal declines and the incipient loss of mammal-bird mutualisms in an African savanna ecosystem
Over the past half-century, large mammal populations have declined substantially throughout East Africa, mainly due to habitat loss and unsustainable direct exploitation. While it has been acknowledged that the loss of large mammals can have direct and cascading effects on community composition and ecosystem characteristics, limited quantitative work has been done on how declines of large herbivore populations impacts the abundance of mutualistic symbionts. Using a space-for-time observational approach, we quantified the large mammal community alongside the densities, host preferences and behaviors of mutualistic red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus), and yellow-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus) in northern Tanzania. At the landscape scale, mammal community composition was substantially less diverse in highly human-dominated areas when compared with more protected areas, with an observed complete loss of large wild mammal species in two study areas. Mirroring this trend, oxpecker densities were lowest in the least protected areas, and highest in fully protected areas. Using resource selection functions implemented via generalized linear models at different scales, we found that oxpeckers (1) were predominantly (67% of red-billed oxpeckers; 70% of yellow-billed oxpeckers) feeding on larger (between 500kg and 1500kg) ungulate host species within the mammal community, (2) usually preferred feeding on larger individuals (adults and males) within a specific host species population, and (3) preferred hosts that were more tolerant of their presence. In particular, cattle were especially intolerant of oxpecker presence and were relatively effective in displacing oxpeckers. We found little evidence that oxpecker feeding was parasitic across all host species; wound feeding was only observed on giraffe, comprising 6% and 4% of feeding behavior in red-billed and yellow-billed oxpeckers respectively. Thus, a loss of large-bodied and oxpecker tolerant host species is a likely explanation for declines of oxpecker populations in human dominated landscapes, which may have further cascading effects.
Diplock, Nathan; Johnston, Kate; Mellon, Antoine; Mitchell, Laura; Moore, Madison; Schneider, Daniel; Taylor, Alyssa; Whitney, Jess; Zegar, Kera; Kioko, John; and Kiffner, Christian, "Large mammal declines and the incipient loss of mammal-bird mutualisms in an African savanna ecosystem" (2018). Faculty Publications. 958.