Shrub cover in northern Nunavik: can herbivores limit shrub expansion?
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- Plante, S., Champagne, E., Ropars, P. et al. Polar Biol (2014) 37: 611. doi:10.1007/s00300-014-1461-6
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Recent climate changes have increased the primary productivity of many Arctic and subarctic regions. Erected shrub has been shown to increase in abundance over the last decades in northern regions in response to warmer climate. At the same time, caribou herds are declining throughout the circumboreal regions. Based on observation of heavy browsing on shrubs at Deception Bay (Nunavik, Canada), we hypothesized that the densification of shrubs observed in nearby locations did not occur at our study site despite of observed warming because of a recent peak of the Rivière-aux-Feuilles caribou herd. To assess shrub cover changes, we compared a 1972 mosaic of aerial photos to a 2010 satellite image over a 5 km2 area, divided into 56 grids of 100 30 m × 30 m cells. Most cells (n = 4,502) did not show any changes in the cover of shrubs but those who did were as likely to increase as to decrease. The relative cover of shrubs in cells who changed was not higher in 2010 (6.1 ± 0.2 %) than in 1972 (7.3 ± 0.4 %). More than 70 % of birch and willow had more than 50 % of their shoot browsed, suggesting that caribou may limit shrub expansion at this site. We cannot rule out that abiotic factors also contribute to the inertia in shrub cover. Increases in shrub abundance reported in Nunavik and elsewhere were located closer to the tree line or in discontinuous permafrost, whereas our site is characterized by herbaceous arctic tundra, continuous permafrost and relatively low annual precipitation.