The importance of ecological memory for trophic rewilding as an ecosystem restoration approach

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  • Andreas H. Schweiger, University of Bayreuth
  • ,
  • Isabelle Boulangeat, Univ. Grenoble Alpes
  • ,
  • Timo Conradi, University of Bayreuth
  • ,
  • Matt Davis
  • ,
  • Jens Christian Svenning

Increasing human pressure on strongly defaunated ecosystems is characteristic of the Anthropocene and calls for proactive restoration approaches that promote self-sustaining, functioning ecosystems. However, the suitability of novel restoration concepts such as trophic rewilding is still under discussion given fragmentary empirical data and limited theory development. Here, we develop a theoretical framework that integrates the concept of ‘ecological memory’ into trophic rewilding. The ecological memory of an ecosystem is defined as an ecosystem's accumulated abiotic and biotic material and information legacies from past dynamics. By summarising existing knowledge about the ecological effects of megafauna extinction and rewilding across a large range of spatial and temporal scales, we identify two key drivers of ecosystem responses to trophic rewilding: (i) impact potential of (re)introduced megafauna, and (ii) ecological memory characterising the focal ecosystem. The impact potential of (re)introduced megafauna species can be estimated from species properties such as lifetime per capita engineering capacity, population density, home range size and niche overlap with resident species. The importance of ecological memory characterising the focal ecosystem depends on (i) the absolute time since megafauna loss, (ii) the speed of abiotic and biotic turnover, (iii) the strength of species interactions characterising the focal ecosystem, and (iv) the compensatory capacity of surrounding source ecosystems. These properties related to the focal and surrounding ecosystems mediate material and information legacies (its ecological memory) and modulate the net ecosystem impact of (re)introduced megafauna species. We provide practical advice about how to quantify all these properties while highlighting the strong link between ecological memory and historically contingent ecosystem trajectories. With this newly established ecological memory–rewilding framework, we hope to guide future empirical studies that investigate the ecological effects of trophic rewilding and other ecosystem-restoration approaches. The proposed integrated conceptual framework should also assist managers and decision makers to anticipate the possible trajectories of ecosystem dynamics after restoration actions and to weigh plausible alternatives. This will help practitioners to develop adaptive management strategies for trophic rewilding that could facilitate sustainable management of functioning ecosystems in an increasingly human-dominated world.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBiological Reviews
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019

    Research areas

  • adaptive management, alternative stable states, anachronism, ecological memory, ecosystem assembly, extinction debt, megafauna, resilience, restoration ecology, rewilding

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