Pre-human Britain wasn’t covered in dense forest but had many areas of open vegetation thanks to rhinos and elephants, a new study reveals.
Specks of pollen and twigs extracted from the teeth of a rhino fossil show that up to three-quarters of Europe could have been open vegetation rather than forests.
And a lack of forest beetle fossils compared to lots of dung beetles in Britain hints that large mammals were making their own mark on the landscape.
Experts thought that post-ice age Europe was primarily covered in dense forests until humans arrived and cut down trees, creating varied landscapes of meadows, heaths, and grasslands.
However, new research from Aarhus University in Denmark indicates this was not actually the case – and that these kinds of landscapes did exist before humans.
The study covers the interglacial period, which lasted from 129,000 years ago to around 115,000 years ago. Humans appeared in Europe around 45,000 years ago.
Academics calculated that between half and three-quarters of the continent’s landscape was covered by open or semi-open vegetation, something most likely caused by the large animals that lived at that time, such as elephants and rhinos.
Dr. Elena Pearce from the University’s biology department and the lead author in the study, said this provides a strong argument for rewilding – with Europe needing large animals to return to its landscapes.
She explained: “The idea that the landscape was covered by dense forest across most of the continent is simply not right.
“We now know that there was a great deal of variation in the landscape, with the evidence suggesting that this arose because of large animals affecting the vegetation structure.”
Researchers identified what type of landscapes Europe consisted of all those years ago by using samples of ancient pollen to establish which plants were growing.
By doing this, they found a lack of evidence of tall-growing shade trees such as spruce, linden, beech and hornbeam but a notable prevalence of plants which do not thrive in dense forests, such as hazel.
Hazel thrives in the open countryside and in open or disturbed forest, and tolerates disturbance from large animals. Even if you cut down a hazel, it will still produce lots of new shoots,”
And it was ancient hazel pollen that was discovered between the teeth of a rhino fossil.
Dr. Pearce added: “Many of the large animals from the interglacial period are now extinct, but we still have bison, horses, and oxen.
“Without large animals, natural areas become dominated by dense vegetation, in which many species of plants and butterflies, for example, cannot thrive.
“Therefore, it’s important we restore large animals to the ecosystems if we are to encourage biodiversity.”
Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, said: “So, the rhinoceros has trudged around eating branches and leaves from hazel bushes, which supports the theory that the large animals have affected the vegetation.
“Marks on its teeth also suggest it had foraged a lot on grass.
“Aurochs, horses, bison, elephants, and rhinos – they must have consumed large amounts of plant biomass and thereby had the capacity to keep the tree-growth in check.
“Of course, it’s also likely that other factors such as floods and forest fires played a part, but there’s no evidence to suggest that these things caused enough disturbance.”
They are also basing their findings on large animals such as bison who have exactly that effect in areas where they are still found in European forests.
He added: “We have looked at a number of finds of beetle fossils from that time in the UK.
“Although there are beetle species that thrive in forests with frequent forest fires, we found none of them in the fossil data.
“Instead, we found large quantities dung beetles, and this shows that parts of the landscape have been densely populated by large herbivores.”