Animating the Carbon Cycle


Understanding the biogeochemical processes regulating carbon cycling is central to mitigating atmospheric CO2 emissions. The role of living organisms has been accounted for, but the focus has traditionally been on contributions of plants and microbes. We develop the case that fully “animating” the carbon cycle requires broader consideration of the functional role of animals in mediating biogeochemical processes and quantification of their effects on carbon storage and exchange among terrestrial and aquatic reservoirs and the atmosphere. To encourage more hypothesis-driven experimental research that quantifies animal effects we discuss the mechanisms by which animals may affect carbon exchanges and storage within and among ecosystems and the atmosphere. We illustrate how those mechanisms lead to multiplier effects whose magnitudes may rival those of more traditional carbon storage and exchange rate estimates currently used in the carbon budget. Many animal species are already directly managed. Thus improved quantitative understanding of their influence on carbon budgets may create opportunity for management and policy to identify and implement new options for mitigating CO2 release at regional scales.

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This paper resulted from the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) 2012 conference and workshop “Managing species for regulating the carbon cycle”. We thank YCEI for its sponsorship and funding. Regular and OPUS grants from US National Science Foundation (DEB 0543398, DEB 0816504, DEB 0842230), grants from the UK Natural Environmental Research (NE/H010041/1) Council and UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BB/F009364/1), and funding from the Nippon Foundation - UBC Nereus Program, also supported our work.

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Correspondence to Oswald J. Schmitz.

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Schmitz, O.J., Raymond, P.A., Estes, J.A. et al. Animating the Carbon Cycle. Ecosystems 17, 344–359 (2014).

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Key words:

  • animal mediation of carbon cycling
  • animal multiplier effects
  • animal management for carbon storage
  • biogeochemical cycling
  • regional carbon budgets