In This Article Biogeomorphology and Zoogeomorphology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Geography Biogeomorphology and Zoogeomorphology
David R. Butler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0061


Biogeomorphology and zoogeomorphology are subfields of the discipline of geomorphology, the study of landforms and land-forming processes. Biogeomorphology encompasses the study of the effects of plants and animals on the landscape, as well as how geomorphic processes (e.g., running water, glacial ice, wind, wave action, landslides and mass movements) affect the distribution of plants and animals. Zoogeomorphology is a subfield of biogeomorphology that specifically focuses on the study of the geomorphic effects of animals. “Phytogeomorphology” is a term sometimes used for the study of the interaction of geomorphic processes and plants. The term “ecogeomorphology” is frequently used as a synonym for “biogeomorphology.” Scientists who study biogeomorphology and zoogeomorphology come from both the disciplines of geomorphology as well as from ecology. In ecology, the term “ecosystem engineering” has emerged since around 1990 to indicate the effects that both animals and plants may have in shaping the landscapes in which they live. Biogeomorphology emerged in the late 1980s as a significant subfield of geomorphology; prior to that time, although a few studies and general observations concerning the interactions of plants or animals and geomorphic processes had been recorded, the field of geomorphology was primarily focused on conceptual models of how entire broad regions achieved the appearance they presented over time. With the increasing focus of geomorphologists on finer-scale studies and measurements of surface processes after about the 1970s, biogeomorphology began to be seen as an important subdiscipline for the measurement and understanding of surface processes. Most of the studies of biogeomorphology that were initiated in the 1980s focused on the interaction of surface processes with vegetation. Zoogeomorphology was slower to develop, and was not even formally defined as a subfield of biogeomorphology until 1992. Zoogeomorphology remains a minority subcomponent of biogeomorphology today, although it is the focus of research for an increasing number of geomorphologists around the world.

General Overviews

Biogeomorphology did not comprise a significant component of research in geomorphology before the late 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, Charles Darwin’s final published work (Darwin 1881) examined the role of earthworms in mixing and enriching soils, as well as examining microfeatures created by worms, including worm casts and tunnels. A general geomorphology text, Lobeck 1939, included a significant discussion of a variety of plant and animal topics as they relate to geomorphology, including log jams, beavers, earthworms, and ants and termites. This book included photographic examples of several features, such as beaver dams, ant and termite mounds, and log jams impounding lakes. After Lobeck’s book, however, a dearth of material in major geomorphology textbooks characterized the next several decades, as revealed in a content analysis of geomorphology textbooks in Stine and Butler 2011. Viles 1988, an edited volume, defined biogeomorphology as a “new term designed to encapsulate concisely the concept of an approach to geomorphology which explicitly considers the role of organisms” (p. 1). That volume was largely focused on the role of plants, although a chapter specifically examined the geomorphological role of termites and earthworms in the tropics, and the role of beavers, grizzly bears, and ground squirrels was briefly summarized in a chapter examining periglacial and alpine environments. A few years later, John Thornes followed up with an edited volume on vegetation and erosion (Thornes 1990). Stallins 2006 referred to biogeomorphology as the “ecology of erosion,” which, while somewhat limiting the discipline in its scope by completely omitting aspects of transportation and deposition, was nonetheless intriguing. Zoogeomorphology was first defined by Butler 1992 as the field of study that explicitly examines animals as geomorphic agents. Butler 1995 expanded on the concepts of zoogeomorphology and is the only book up to 2012 exclusively focused on the geomorphic impacts of animals ranging from invertebrates to ectothermic vertebrates (including fish, amphibians, and reptiles) to birds and mammals, and with a chapter specifically devoted to the geomorphic impacts of beavers. More recently, several special issues of the international journal Geomorphology (cited under Journals) have been devoted to a variety of aspects of biogeomorphology, including Hupp 1995 (cited under Biogeomorphology), which is largely focused on vegetation, with only three of twenty-one papers focusing on the geomorphic impacts of animals; Hession, et al. 2010 (cited under Biogeomorphology) on geomorphology and vegetation; Wheaton, et al. 2011 (cited under Biogeomorphology) on multiscale feedbacks in ecogeomorphology; and Butler and Sawyer 2012 (cited under Zoogeomorphology) on zoogeomorphology and ecosystem engineering.

  • Butler, David R. “The Grizzly Bear as an Erosional Agent in Mountainous Terrain.” Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 36 (1992): 179–189.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first published definition of the term zoogeomorphology, in an examination of the ways grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, Montana, erode, transport, and deposit sediment. Through digging for food and excavation of winter hibernation dens, each adult bear annually moves nearly 7 cubic meters of sediment.

  • Butler, David R. Zoogeomorphology: Animals as Geomorphic Agents. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511529900E-mail Citation »

    The first and only book to date exclusively focused on the geomorphic impacts of animals. Examines the impacts of geophagy and lithophagy, trampling and wallowing behavior, mound building, food caching, digging for food, burrowing and denning, and the geomorphic effects of beavers. Extensive bibliography covering period prior to 1995.

  • Darwin, Charles. The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. London: John Murray, 1881.

    E-mail Citation »

    The last published work of Charles Darwin examines the bioturbational effects of earthworms on soils in great detail, compiled over years of observation. Detailed sketch drawings of worm casts and micro-scale landform features created by earthworms. Can be considered the first major published work in the subsequently defined field of zoogeomorphology.

  • Lobeck, Armin K. Geomorphology: An Introduction to the Study of Landscapes. New York: McGraw Hill, 1939.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the few general geomorphology textbooks of the period prior to the 1980s that gave any extensive coverage to the effects of animals (beavers, coral reefs, gophers) on the landscape, as well as the effects of log jams on fluvial systems. Excellent panchromatic photographs.

  • Stallins, J. Anthony. “Geomorphology and Ecology: Unifying Themes for Complex Systems in Biogeomorphology.” Geomorphology 77 (2006): 207–216.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2006.01.005E-mail Citation »

    Builds upon the theory of complexity in geomorphology to illustrate how “the ecology of erosion” can serve as a basis to integrate the fields of geomorphology and ecology. Examples primarily focus upon phytogeomorphology rather than zoogeomorphology, but nonetheless intriguing.

  • Stine, Melanie B., and David R. Butler. “A Content Analysis of Biogeomorphology within Geomorphology Textbooks.” Geomorphology 125 (2011): 336–342.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2010.09.003E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the presence and content of biogeomorphology material within geomorphology textbooks covering the period 1939–2007. US and international books were examined. Results indicated minimal biogeomorphological material, primarily focused on coral reefs, the role of vegetation in inhibiting erosion, and burrowing animals.

  • Thornes, John B., ed. Vegetation and Erosion: Processes and Environments. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    Twenty-nine chapters dedicated to the geomorphic influence of vegetative cover and its removal; authors from around the world include major biogeomorphologists Heather Viles, Cliff Hupp, Andrew Simon, Stanley Trimble, Mark Macklin, and many others. Thornes states in introductory chapter that vegetation is important in geomorphology because it controls the nature and rate of geomorphic processes.

  • Viles, Heather A., ed. Biogeomorphology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    Viles aims to provide a synthesis in order to assess the knowledge base concerning the biological component of geomorphology, noting that the organic component has often been ignored by geomorphologists. Chapters by experts examine organic effects in temperate fluvial, tropical rainforest, arid and semiarid, periglacial, coastal, and karst environments.

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