Prairie vegetation and soil nutrient responses to ungulate carcasses
The impact of large ungulate carcasses on grassland dynamics was investigated by monitoring vegetation and soil nutrients in 50-cm circular zones around the center of bison (Bos bison), cattle (B. taurus), and deer (Odocoileus virginianus) carcasses. An ungulate carcass creates an intense localized disturbance that varies with animal size and the season of death. Unlike other natural disturbances, carcasses deposit a concentrated pulse of nutrients into the soil. One year after death, inorganic nitrogen concentrations were significantly higher in the inner 50 cm at both adult and juvenile carcass sites than in surrounding prairie. Areas around a carcass became zones of fertility that favored different components of the vegetation and stimulated biomass production. Species richness and diversity at the center of carcass sites were lowest 1 year after death, but increased significantly in subsequent years. However, warm-season perennial grasses declined near the center of carcass sites and did not recover. Five years after death, ungulate carcass sites remained disturbed patches that harbored vegetation characteristically different in composition and stature from surrounding prairie. By providing a niche for species not normally found in undisturbed prairie, carcasses increased community heterogeneity and may play an important role in adding spatial complexity to grassland ecosytems.