Impact of herbivores on nitrogen cycling: contrasting effects of small and large species
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- Bakker, E.S., Olff, H., Boekhoff, M. et al. Oecologia (2004) 138: 91. doi:10.1007/s00442-003-1402-5
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Herbivores are reported to slow down as well as enhance nutrient cycling in grasslands. These conflicting results may be explained by differences in herbivore type. In this study we focus on herbivore body size as a factor that causes differences in herbivore effects on N cycling. We used an exclosure set-up in a floodplain grassland grazed by cattle, rabbits and common voles, where we subsequently excluded cattle and rabbits. Exclusion of cattle lead to an increase in vole numbers and a 1.5-fold increase in net annual N mineralization at similar herbivore densities (corrected to metabolic weight). Timing and height of the mineralization peak in spring was the same in all treatments, but mineralization in the vole-grazed treatment showed a peak in autumn, when mineralization had already declined under cattle grazing. This mineralization peak in autumn coincides with a peak in vole density and high levels of N input through vole faeces at a fine-scale distribution, whereas under cattle grazing only a few patches receive all N and most experience net nutrient removal. The other parameters that we measured, which include potential N mineralization rates measured under standardized laboratory conditions and soil parameters, plant biomass and plant nutrient content measured in the field, were the same for all three grazing treatments and could therefore not cause the observed difference. When cows were excluded, more litter accumulated in the vegetation. The formation of this litter layer may have added to the higher mineralization rates under vole grazing, through enhanced nutrient return through litter or through modification of microclimate. We conclude that different-sized herbivores have different effects on N cycling within the same habitat. Exclusion of large herbivores resulted in increased N annual mineralization under small herbivore grazing.