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Large and small herbivores have strong effects on tundra vegetation in Scandinavia and Alaska

Citation

Lindén, Elin; Gough, Laura; Olofsson, Johan (2022), Large and small herbivores have strong effects on tundra vegetation in Scandinavia and Alaska, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.rfj6q57b6

Abstract

Large and small mammalian herbivores are present in most vegetated areas in the Arctic, and often have large impacts on plant community composition and ecosystem functioning. The relative importance of different herbivores and especially how their specific impact on the vegetation varies across the Arctic is however poorly understood.

Here, we investigate how large and small herbivores influence vegetation density and plant community composition in four arctic vegetation types in Scandinavia and Alaska. We used a unique set of exclosures, excluding only large (reindeer and muskoxen) or all mammalian herbivores (also voles and lemmings) for at least 20 years.

We found that mammalian herbivores in general decreased Leaf Area Index, NDVI and abundance of vascular plants in all four locations, even though the strength of the effect and which herbivore type caused these effects differed across locations. In three locations, herbivore presence caused contrasting plant communities, but not in the location with lowest productivity. Large herbivores had a negative effect on plant height, whereas small mammalian herbivores increased species diversity by decreasing dominance of the initially dominating plant species. Above- or belowground disturbances caused by herbivores were found to play an important role in shaping the vegetation in all locations.

Synthesis: Based on these results, we conclude that both small and large mammalian herbivores influence vegetation in Scandinavia and Alaska in a similar way, some of which can mitigate effects of climate change. We also see important differences across locations, but these depend rather on local herbivore- and plant community composition than large biogeographical differences among continents.