A caribou in the woods

Yale Doctoral Students Highlight ‘Animal-Vectored Subsidies’ in Journal of Animal Ecology

Kristy Ferraro and Diego Ellis Soto have developed a “roadmap” to quantify how the movement of animals of all shapes and sizes contribute to and remove nutrients within and across ecosystems. This work earned them the 2022 Sidnie Manton Award from the British Ecological Society.

The November 2022 virtual issue of the Journal of Animal Ecology focused entirely on the topic of “animal-vectored subsidies” — how the movement of animals of all shapes and sizes contribute to and remove nutrients within and across ecosystems, altering their nutrient cycling, stability, and structure.

The issue was a compilation of scholarly papers published in the journal, dating back more than a dozen years, that show a progression of understanding of how animals affect biogeochemistry. The task of putting together the issue fell to Yale School of the Environment doctoral student Kristy Ferraro and Diego Ellis Soto, a PhD student at Yale’s Center for Biodiversity and Global Change. The students were the lead authors on a 2021 paper published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, “A methodological roadmap to quantify animal-vectored spatial ecosystem subsidies,” which is showcased in the November issue.

Kristy Ferraro

“This roadmap explains how animals affect nitrogen and carbon cycling, and it highlights many amazing new tools for tracking the processes,” says Ferraro, who researches how large herbivores help shape the ecosystems they inhabit in YSE’s Schmitz Lab. “It brings together many disciplines that researchers need to understand — soil science, animal movement ecology, ecosystem ecology — in a cohesive, streamlined way.”

The paper covers tools that include camera traps, DNA, remote sensing, and GPS data, as well as theory and technical research tools. It also covers a variety of animals — mammals, insects, and fish — that affect nitrogen and carbon cycling. Combined, this research contributes to the understanding of the role animals have in shaping, connecting, and promoting the stability and functioning of ecosystems and also informs nature-based solutions, including “rewilding” animals to restore ecosystem functions and large-scale ecological restoration.

Ultimately, Ferraro and Ellis Soto highlight five key steps for understanding the effects of animals within ecosystems: addressing how, why, and where an animal is moving; identifying the habitats used by the animal; determining nutrients available to and consumed by the animal; discerning the movement rate and directional flows of the species; and identifying the quantity and location of nutrient deposition by the animal.

“Our goal was to show how research projects covering these topics can come together, combining different disciplines and novel tools at each step,” Ferraro says.

Diego Ellis Soto

Ellis Soto, a movement ecologist who studies giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands, says editing the journal gave the authors an opportunity to see how research around animal-vectored subsidies has been approached over time and how much combining different disciplines into the research has created more cohesion.

“It was interesting for us, as young researchers, to witness. It shows a need to bring different skillsets and interdisciplinarity into our work,” Ellis Soto says.

The two also stressed the importance of including a diversity of voices — in gender, race, and geographic location — when selecting the papers featured in the issue.

Ferraro and Ellis Soto were given the opportunity to edit the Journal of Animal Ecology when they won the 2022 Sidnie Manton Award by the British Ecological Society, a competition for early-career ecologists submitting a review or long-term study to the publication. Ferraro also will be presenting the findings of that paper at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting this month in Edinburgh, Scotland.