Elephants versus butterflies: The ecological role of large herbivores in the evolutionary history of two tropical worlds

Cris Cristoffer, Carlos A. Peres

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


Aim: Large herbivores have important effects upon Paleotropical ecosystems, but attain much lower biomass densities in the Neotropics. We assess how this difference in herbivore activity has generated different ecological and evolutionary trajectories in the New and Old World tropics. We also propose an explanation for how the greater biomass density in the Old World came about. Location: Data were compiled primarily from moist tropical forests, although more of the relevant information to address most of our hypotheses was available from the mainland areas of Africa, Asia, and South America than elsewhere. Methods: We gleaned data from published information and personal communication. We compared body masses and a variety of other types of information for the New- and Old-World tropics. We proposed that interhemispheric differences exist in a variety of processes, including herbivory, frugivory, and flower visitation. We erected hypotheses and evaluated them qualitatively, and, when information was available, tested them using simple ratios of species in various taxonomic and trophic categories. To make the comparisons more meaningful, we specified appropriate data selection criteria. Results: A general pattern of differences emerges from this review. Compared with Neotropical forests, the much greater biomass densities of large herbivores in Paleo- tropical forests are associated with a lesser diversity of small herbivores, different hunting methods used by indigenous humans, larger arboreal vertebrates, larger fruits, different patterns of fruit and flower dispersion in space and time, a lesser abundance of most types of reproductive plant parts, and other features. The existence of a species-rich fauna of large herbivores in the pre-Holocene Neotropical rain forest was not supported. Main conclusions: The potential for large herbivores to cause functional differences between the New and Old World tropical forests has been virtually unexplored, despite the well-known importance of large herbivores in the Old World tropics. The evaluations of our hypotheses suggest that the abundance of large herbivores in the Old World tropics has launched it onto a different evolutionary trajectory than that of the NewWorld tropics. The relevant evidence, although scanty, suggests that the inter- hemispheric ecological differences are not an artefact of recent megafaunal extinctions in the New World. Recent human activities have, however, reduced population sizes of large wild herbivores in the Old World, and increased population sizes of livestock. This has likely created a rather homogeneous, anthropogenic selection pressure that tends to erase the evolutionary differences between the two tropical worlds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1357-1380
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2003

Cite this