Opposing plant community responses to warming with and without herbivores

  • Post E
  • Pedersen C
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Abstract

If controls over primary productivity and plant community composition are mainly environmental, as opposed to biological, then global change may result in large-scale alterations in ecosystem structure and function. This view appears to be favored among investigations of plant biomass and community responses to experimental and observed warming. In far northern and arctic ecosystems, such studies predict increasing dominance of woody shrubs with future warming and emphasize the carbon (C)-sequestration potential and consequent atmospheric feedback potential of such responses. In contrast to previous studies, we incorporated natural herbivory by muskoxen and caribou into a 5-year experimental investigation of arctic plant community response to warming. In accordance with other studies, warming increased total community biomass by promoting growth of deciduous shrubs (dwarf birch and gray willow). However, muskoxen and caribou reduced total community biomass response, and responses of birch and willow, to warming by 19%, 46%, and 11%, respectively. Furthermore, under warming alone, the plant community shifted after 5 years away from graminoid-dominated toward dwarf birch-dominated. In contrast, where herbivores grazed, plant community composition on warmed plots did not differ from that on ambient plots after 5 years. These results highlight the potentially important and overlooked influences of vertebrate herbivores on plant community response to warming and emphasize that conservation and management of large herbivores may be an important component of mitigating ecosystem response to climate change.

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Authors

  • E. Post

  • C. Pedersen

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