The Poetry of Science – Episode 9: Our Elephant Graveyard

Trees and plants use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, removing it from the atmosphere. In this episode of the podcast Dr Samuel Illingworth investigates how forest elephants help to make this process more efficient, and how their extinction will have negative effects on global warming.

Trees and plants use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, removing it from the atmosphere. They are therefore helpful in sequestering (or storing) carbon emissions from human activities, helping to reduce the extent of global warming. Some trees and plants are more efficient at sequestering carbon than others, with slow growing species with a high density of wood the most effective at removing it from our atmosphere. Forests that have a higher proportion of such species therefore have a greater positive impact on reducing global warming, and researchers have found that forests elephants can help to create such environments.

As forest elephants prefer to eat relatively fast-growing species of plants and trees, they cause high levels of damage to these species compared to the slower-growing ones, meaning that over time the forests they inhabit become dominated by trees and plants with a relatively high density of wood, making them capable of storing more carbon. In monetary terms, the researchers in this study estimate that forest elephants represent a global carbon storage service of $43 billion. However, forest elephant populations are rapidly declining and facing extinction, which will in turn cause an increase in the number of fast-growing tree and plant species (at the expense of the slow-growing ones), thereby reducing the ability of forests to capture carbon and exacerbating the effects of global warming.

Listen to the audio version of this episode’s science poem

Read this episode’s science poem

Browsing through the foliage
You selectively suppress
The spindly growths of youth,
Maintaining gaps of light
Through frequent visitations
To clumsily prune each trunkful
Of frail and wasteful biomass.

Ungainly gardeners of this
Fragile, jaded home,
Your disturbances reshape
Wooded structures and
Buried thickets;
Shearing lively brushes
As you cultivate thicker
Trunks that lap greedily
At our dirty, cast-off air.

Pausing for breath,
You perch motionless;
Each trembling lungful
A rhythmic shadow to the
Silent inhalations of
Your custodial canopy.

Stewards of our Eden,
We reward these gifts
By weeding your garden;
The rapidly rising shoots
Burying your footsteps
As the forest’s exhalations
Become a ragged wheeze.

By Dr Sam Illingworth

External Resources

Read the scientific study that inspired it here.

The original episode appeared here.

The Poetry of Science blog.

Go back to The Poetry of Science

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by Richard Ruggiero/USFWS

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