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Ecological and metabolomic responses of plants to deer exclosure in a suburban forest

Cite this dataset

Morrison, Janet; Woldemariam, Melkamu (2022). Ecological and metabolomic responses of plants to deer exclosure in a suburban forest [Dataset]. Dryad.


Trees and shrubs in suburban forests can be subject to chronic herbivory from abundant white-tailed deer, influencing survival, growth, secondary metabolites and ecological success in the community. We investigated how deer affect the size, cover, and metabolomes of four species in the understory of a suburban forest in central New Jersey, USA: the woody shrubs Euonymus alatus and Lindera benzoin, the tree Nyssa sylvatica, and the semi-woody shrub Rosa multiflora. For each species, we compared plants in 38 16 m2 plots with or without deer exclosure, measuring proportion cover and mean height after 6.5 years of fencing. We scored each species in all plots for deer browsing over eight years and assessed selection by deer among the species. We did untargeted metabolomics by sampling leaves from three plants of each species in an equal number of fenced and unfenced plots, conducting chloroform-methanol extractions followed by LC-MS/MS, and conducting statistical analysis on MetaboAnalyst. The proportion of a species browsed ranged from 0.24 to 0.35. Nyssa sylvatica appeared most selected by and susceptible to deer; in unfenced plots both its cover and mean height were significantly lower. Only cover or height was lower for E. alatus and L. benzoin in unfenced plots, while R. multiflora height was greater. The metabolomic analysis identified 2,333 metabolites, which clustered by species but not fencing treatment. However, targeted analysis of the top metabolites grouped by fencing for all samples and for each species alone, and was especially clear in N. sylvatica, which also grouped by fencing using all metabolites. The most significant metabolites that were upregulated in fenced plants include some involved in defense-related metabolic pathways, e.g. monoterpenoid biosynthesis. In overbrowsed suburban forests, variation of deer impact on species’ ecological success, potentially mediated by metabolome-wide chemical responses to deer, may contribute to changes in community structure.


National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka, Award: NSF_DEB 1257833