John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology, received an $848,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of declining elephant populations on Africa’s forests.

Poaching and habitat loss have reduced forest elephant populations in Central Africa by 63% since 2001. These losses threaten the survival of up to 96% of the region’s forests, Poulsen’s past studies have shown. That’s because elephants help create and maintain forests by dispersing seeds and spreading nutrients in their dung, and eating vegetation and trampling small trees which allows for more sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor.

The new five-year NSF CAREER grant will enable Poulsen and his students to investigate how the loss of these ecological engineers will change the forests and forever alter the vital ecosystem services such as timber, medicine and food that the forests provide.

The team’s findings could provide new insights into the impacts of other megafauna species in closed canopy forests worldwide.

CAREER grants are among the most prestigious awards presented by NSF to early-career researchers.