The ecological importance of crocodylians: towards evidence-based justification for their conservation

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Large-bodied predators are well represented among the world's threatened and endangered species. A significant body of literature shows that in terrestrial and marine ecosystems large predators can play important roles in ecosystem structure and functioning. By contrast, the ecological roles and importance of large predators within freshwater ecosystems are poorly understood, constraining the design and implementation of optimal conservation strategies for freshwater ecosystems. Conservationists and environmentalists frequently promulgate ecological roles that crocodylians are assumed to fulfil, but often with limited evidence supporting those claims. Here, we review the available information on the ecological importance of crocodylians, a widely distributed group of predominantly freshwater-dwelling, large-bodied predators. We synthesise information regarding the role of crocodylians under five criteria within the context of modern ecological concepts: as indicators of ecological health, as ecosystem engineers, apex predators, keystone species, and as contributors to nutrient and energy translocation across ecosystems. Some crocodylians play a role as indicators of ecosystem health, but this is largely untested across the order Crocodylia. By contrast, the role of crocodylian activities in ecosystem engineering is largely anecdotal, and information supporting their assumed role as apex predators is currently limited to only a few species. Whether crocodylians contribute significantly to nutrient and energy translocation through cross-ecosystem movements is unknown. We conclude that most claims regarding the importance of crocodylians as apex predators, keystone species, ecosystem engineers, and as contributors to nutrient and energy translocation across ecosystems are mostly unsubstantiated speculation, drawn from anecdotal observations made during research carried out primarily for other purposes. There is a paucity of biological research targeted directly at: understanding population dynamics; trophic interactions within their ecological communities; and quantifying the short- and long-term ecological impacts of crocodylian population declines, extirpations, and recoveries. Conservation practices ideally need evidence-based planning, decision making and justification. Addressing the knowledge gaps identified here will be important for achieving effective conservation of crocodylians.

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Biological Reviews





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