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Data from: Foraging by an avian ecosystem engineer extensively modifies the litter and soil layer in forest ecosystems

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Maisey, Alex; Haslem, Angie; Leonard, Steven; Bennett, Andrew (2020). Data from: Foraging by an avian ecosystem engineer extensively modifies the litter and soil layer in forest ecosystems [Dataset]. Dryad.


Ecosystem engineers physically modify their environment, thereby altering habitats for other organisms. Increasingly, ‘engineers’ are recognised as an important focus for conservation and ecological restoration because their actions affect a range of ecosystem processes and thereby influence how ecosystems function. The superb lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae is proposed as an ecosystem engineer in forests of south-eastern Australia due to the volume of soil and litter it turns over when foraging. We measured the seasonal and spatial patterns of foraging by lyrebirds and the amount of soil displaced in forests in the Central Highlands, Victoria. We tested the effects of foraging on litter, soil nutrients and soil physical properties by using an experimental approach with three treatments: lyrebird exclusion, lyrebird exclusion with simulated foraging, and non-exclusion reference plots. Treatments were replicated in three forest types in each of three forest blocks. Lyrebirds foraged extensively in all forest types in all seasons. On average, lyrebirds displaced 155.7 t/ha of litter and soil in a 12-month period. Greater displacement occurred where vegetation complexity (<50 cm height) was low. After two years of lyrebird exclusion, soil compaction (top 7.5 cm) increased by 37% in exclusion plots compared with baseline measures, whilst in unfenced plots it decreased by 22%. Litter depth was almost three times greater in fenced than unfenced plots. Soil moisture, pH and soil nutrients showed no difference between treatments. The enormous extent of litter and soil turned over by the superb lyrebird is unparalleled by any other vertebrate soil engineer in terrestrial ecosystems globally. The profound influence of such foraging activity on forest ecosystems is magnified by its year-round pattern and widespread distribution. The disturbance regime that lyrebirds impose has implications for diverse ecosystem processes including decomposition and nutrient cycling, the composition of litter- and soil-dwelling invertebrate communities, the shaping of ground-layer vegetation patterns, and fire behavior and post-fire ecosystem recovery. Maintaining lyrebird populations as a key facilitator of ecosystem function is now timely and critical as unprecedented wildfires in eastern Australia in summer 2019/2020 have severely burned ~12 million ha of forest, including ~30% of the geographic range of the superb lyrebird.

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