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Passive external transport of freshwater invertebrates by elephant and other mud-wallowing mammals in an African savannah habitat


Bram Vanschoenwinkel, Laboratory of Aquatic Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Ch. Deberiotstraat 32, 3000 Leuven, Belgium. E-mail:


1. Recent findings hint at the potential importance of mammals affecting the spatial dynamics of aquatic organisms in areas where mammals live in close association with water. Perhaps the most iconic example of such an environment is the African savannah.

2. We investigated dispersal patterns of freshwater organisms among a set of temporary ponds in SE Zimbabwe to test the hypothesis that large mammals, and particularly African elephants (Loxodonta africana), can be important vectors of aquatic organisms. Dispersal kernels were reconstructed by hatching mud collected from ‘rubbing’ trees located at increasing distances from a set of isolated ponds. To assess the relative importance of other mammalian vectors, the vertical distribution of mud on rubbing trees was mapped and related to the body size of candidate vector species.

3. Laboratory hatching of mud samples revealed large numbers of propagules of 22 invertebrate taxa as well as some aquatic macrophytes. Dispersing communities reflected source communities and diverged with increasing distance from the source. Both dispersal rates and richness of transported taxa decreased significantly with dispersal distance. No indications for differences in dispersal capacity among propagule types were detected. Instead, common propagules were more likely to travel greater distances. Most mud was attached to trees at heights >1.5 m, implicating elephants as the dominant vector. Vertical distributions of tree mud, however, also revealed clustering at heights up to 50 cm and 90–120 cm corresponding to the height of warthog, rhinoceros and buffalo, respectively. Finally, variation in the vertical distribution of mud on trees in combination with differences in vector vagility suggests that local differences in vector species composition may affect passive dispersal dynamics of aquatic organisms.

4. Based on vagility and vector load, mud-wallowing mammals emerge as highly effective vectors that, in some areas, may be more important in transporting aquatic organisms than traditionally recognised vectors such as waterbirds. Since most large- and medium-sized mammals currently have restricted geographic distributions, it is likely that mammal-mediated dispersal was more important in the past.

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