Loss of grazing by large mammalian herbivores can destabilize the soil carbon pool

Dilip G. T. Naidu, Shamik Roy, Sumanta Bagchi

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Grazing by mammalian herbivores can be a climate mitigation strategy as it influences the size and stability of a large soil carbon (soil-C) pool (more than 500 Pg C in the world’s grasslands, steppes, and savannas). With continuing declines in the numbers of large mammalian herbivores, the resultant loss in grazer functions can be consequential for this soil-C pool and ultimately for the global carbon cycle. While herbivore effects on the size of the soil-C pool and the conditions under which they lead to gain or loss in soil-C are becoming increasingly clear, their effect on the equally important aspect of stability of soil-C remains unknown. We used a replicated long-term field experiment in the Trans-Himalayan grazing ecosystem to evaluate the consequences of herbivore exclusion on interannual fluctuations in soil-C (2006 to 2021). Interannual fluctuations in soil-C and soil-N were 30 to 40% higher after herbivore exclusion than under grazing. Structural equation modeling suggested that grazing appears to mediate the stabilizing versus destabilizing influences of nitrogen (N) on soil-C. This may explain why N addition stimulates soil-C loss in the absence of herbivores around the world. Herbivore loss, and the consequent decline in grazer functions, can therefore undermine the stability of soil-C. Soil-C is not inert but a very dynamic pool. It can provide nature-based climate solutions by conserving and restoring a functional role of large mammalian herbivores that extends to the stoichiometric coupling between soil-C and soil-N.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2211317119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number43
Early online date17 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2022


  • biogeochemistry
  • carbon cycle
  • path analysis
  • phase-space analysis
  • stoichiometry

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