Rewiring the Carbon Cycle: A Theoretical Framework for Animal-Driven Ecosystem Carbon Sequestration

The mathematical tools that scientists use to account for the amount of carbon captured and stored in ecosystems rarely consider the effects of animals. This stems from the assumption that because animals are much rarer than plants and microbes in ecosystems their potential influence ought to be minimal. Yet, field studies have begun to show that this assumption may not be accurate. Here, we report on modeling analyses that incorporate insights from field research about the different ways that animals can affect carbon uptake and storage in ecosystems through their interactions with plants and microbes. Our analyses show that animal presence fundamentally changes the relationships between plants, microbes, and the environment. In turn, this leads to large changes in the amount of carbon captured and stored in ecosystems relative to conditions that exclude animals. Hence, animals can be allies in fighting climate change as a key addition to the growing portfolio of nature-based climate change solutions.

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