Trait-based mechanistic approach highlights global patterns and losses of herbivore biomass functional diversity

Fabio Berzaghi*, Dan Zhu, John Alroy, Philippe Ciais

*Corresponding author for this work

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    1. Mammalian herbivores play a pivotal role in Earth System processes by affecting biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem functioning, potentially leading to significant repercussions on atmosphere–biosphere feedbacks. Global dynamic models of mammalian populations can improve our understanding of their ecological role at large scales and the consequences of their extinctions. However, such models are still lacking and mammals are poorly integrated in Earth System Science. 

    2. We developed a mechanistic global model of terrestrial herbivore populations simulated with 37 functional groups defined through the analysis of eco-physiological traits across all extant herbivores (2599 species). We coupled this model with a global vegetation model to predict herbivores' maximum potential biomass in pre-industrial and at present-day and to study the environmental drivers explaining the distribution of herbivore biomass. Present-day biomass was estimated by accounting for anthropogenic activity causing habitat and range losses. 

    3. We show that natural ecosystems could have sustained a potential wild herbivore wet biomass of 330 Mt (95% CI: 245–417), comprised of 193 Mt (95% CI: 177–208) by large species (body mass >1–10 kg, depending on functional group) and 138 Mt (95% CI: 68–209) by small species. We estimate that the remaining present-day large herbivores biomass is 82 Mt (95% CI: 32–133), reduced by 57% due to anthropogenic activity; consequently, small herbivores currently dominate global herbivore biomass with 98 Mt (95% CI: 91–106, −29%). Losses vary greatly across climatic zones and functional groups, suggesting that size is not the only discriminant feature of biomass decline. 

    4. Actual evapotranspiration is the most important driver of total, large and small herbivore biomass and explains 64%, 59% and 49% of its variation, respectively. Distribution of modelled and observed large herbivores' biomass suggested a high dependency on energy and water with more biomass in hot and wet areas. These results challenge the notion that large herbivore biomass peaks primarily in ecosystems with intermediate precipitation levels such as savannas. 

    5. Outside Africa and the Tropics, pre-industrial biomass hotspots occur in areas today dominated by humans; this could undermine the recovery of larger species biomass in certain areas. Our herbivore biomass estimates provide a quantitative benchmark for setting conservation and rewilding goals at large spatial scales. The herbivore model and functional classification create new opportunities to integrate mammals into Earth System Science and models.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)808-819
    Number of pages12
    JournalFunctional Ecology
    Issue number4
    Early online date4 Feb 2024
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2024. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • earth system modelling
    • ecological modelling
    • functional classification
    • macroecology
    • mammals biomass
    • trait-based ecology


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