Functional substitutability of native herbivores by livestock for soil carbon depends on microbial decomposers

Shamik Roy, Dilip GT Naidu, Sumanta Bagchi

Research output: Working paperPreprint


Grazing by large mammalian herbivores impacts climate as it can favor the size and stability of a large carbon (C) pool in soil. As native herbivores in the world’s grasslands, steppes, and savannas are progressively being displaced by livestock, it is important to ask whether livestock can emulate the functional roles of their native counterparts. While livestock and native herbivores can have remarkable similarity in their traits, they can differ greatly in their impacts on vegetation composition which can affect soil-C. It is uncertain how their similarities and differences impact soil-C via their influence on microbial decomposers. We test competing alternative hypotheses with a replicated, long-term, landscape-level, grazing-exclusion experiment to ask whether livestock in the Trans-Himalayan ecosystem of northern India can match decadal-scale (2005-2016) soil-C stocks under native herbivores. We evaluate multiple lines of evidence from 17 variables that influence soil-C (quantity and quality of C-input from plants, microbial biomass and metabolism, microbial community composition, veterinary antibiotics in soil), and asses their inter-relationships. Livestock and native herbivores differed in their effects on several soil microbial processes. Microbial carbon use efficiency (CUE) was 19% lower in soils under livestock. Compared to native herbivores, areas used by livestock contained 1.5 kg C m−2 less soil-C. Structural equation models showed that alongside effects arising from plants, livestock alter soil microbial communities which is detrimental for CUE, and ultimately also for soil-C. Supporting evidence pointed toward a link between veterinary antibiotics used on livestock, microbial communities, and soil-C. Overcoming the challenges of sequestrating antibiotics to minimize their potential impacts on climate, alongside microbial rewilding under livestock, may reconcile the conflicting demands from food-security and ecosystem services. Conservation of native herbivores and better management of livestock is crucial for soil-C stewardship to envision and achieve natural climate solutions.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022
Externally publishedYes

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