Every time an African elephant takes a step, it inadvertently creates a home for other animals. Scientific American reports that, according to a recent study, as old elephant footprints fill up with water, they turn into an aquatic hotel for mayflies, mites, leeches, gastropods, and even tadpoles. All in all, at least 61 species of macroinvertebrate can be found splashing around in the deep, watery indentations left behind by the heavy animals.
While previous research has found that elephant footprints sometimes serve as mosquito breeding sites, the research team, from the University of Koblenz-Landau, was the first to attempt to identify the full range of macroinvertebrates that live in footprints. Researchers studied the composition of 30 real elephant footprints in Uganda as well as 18 artificial footprints. They discovered that the oldest footprints had the highest levels of biodiversity, and theorized that, as dead leaves fell into the footprints, and new vegetation began to grow, the footprints became more hospitable to animals. Overall, the range of macroinvertebrates making their home in the footprints was incredibly diverse, spanning nine different orders.
More research is needed to determine the exact impact the micro-habitats that spring up in elephant footprints may have on the ecosystem at large. However, the scientists believe it’s likely that the footprints play an important role in their environment, providing homes for small aquatic species, as well as food for larger predators. The study is a reminder not only of the ecological importance of elephants, but the surprising impact mundane, everyday actions, like walking through the forest, can have on the environment.
[h/t Scientific American]
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