Interactions between local climate and grazing determine the population dynamics of the small herb Viola biflora
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- Evju, M., Halvorsen, R., Rydgren, K. et al. Oecologia (2010) 163: 921. doi:10.1007/s00442-010-1637-x
Plants of low stature may benefit from the presence of large herbivores through removal of tall competitive neighbours and increased light availability. Accordingly, removal of grazers has been predicted to disfavour small species. In addition to this indirect beneficial effect, the population dynamics of plants is strongly influenced by variation in external conditions such as temperature and precipitation. However, few studies have examined the interaction between large herbivores and inter-annual variation in climate for the population dynamics of small plant species not preferred by herbivores. We studied three populations of the perennial herb Viola biflora exposed to different sheep densities (high, low and zero) for 6 years in a field experiment. Plants were also impacted by invertebrate and small vertebrate herbivores (rodents). Rates of growth were marginally higher at high sheep densities, and during warm summers both survival and growth were higher when sheep were present. Thus, while the height of tall herbs was positively related to July temperature, it was less so in the treatments with sheep, suggesting that sheep reduce the negative effects of interspecific competition for this small herb. Life table response experiment analyses revealed that the population growth rate (λ) was slightly lower in the absence of sheep, but between-year variation in λ was larger than variation among sheep density treatments. λ was negatively related to July temperature, with an additional negative effect of vertebrate grazing frequency (sheep or rodent grazing). The evidence from this 6-year study suggests that the population dynamics of Viola biflora is determined by a complex interplay between climate and grazing by both large and small herbivores.