Rewilding soil-disturbing vertebrates to rehabilitate degraded landscapes: benefits and risks

Eldridge, D. & Soliveres, S. | Biology Letters | 2023 | Peer Reviewed | Review |


Soil-disturbing animals are common globally and play important roles in creating and maintaining healthy functional soils and landscapes. Yet many of these animals are threatened or locally extinct due to habitat loss, predation by non-native animals or poaching and poisoning. Some reintroduction and rewilding programmes have as their core aims to increase animal populations and reinstate processes that have been lost due to their extirpation. Here we use a meta-analytical approach to review the effects of soil-disturbing vertebrates on ecosystem processes, and advance the argument that they can be used to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems by altering mainly composition and function, but with fewer positive effects on structure. We describe four examples where the loss or reintroduction of soil-disturbing vertebrates leads to ecosystem state changes and highlight the role of spatial scale, covarying management changes, and species co-occurrence in modulating their effects. We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using soil-disturbing vertebrates over mechanized engineering approaches such as pitting and furrowing, considering some advantages to include more self-sustainable and heterogeneous disturbances, creation of new habitats and added recreational values. Finally, we identify key knowledge gaps in our understanding of the use of soil-disturbing vertebrates for rehabilitating degraded ecosystems.