Aggregative responses of brent geese on salt marsh and their impact on plant community dynamics
- Cite this article as:
- Rowcliffe, J., Watkinson, A. & Sutherland, W. Oecologia (1998) 114: 417. doi:10.1007/s004420050465
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The aggregative responses and habitat preferences of a generalist herbivore, the dark-bellied brent goose Branta bernicla bernicla, feeding on salt marshes are examined in relation to vegetation community characteristics and the abundances of individual plant species. In the autumn, feeding was strongly concentrated on the low marsh, which had the highest biomass of the preferred food plant, Salicornia europaea. There was a strong aggregative response of the geese to the abundance of S. europaea. A decline in the availability of S. europaea led to an increase in the pattern of aggregation in relation to the two other major food plants on the low marsh, Aster tripolium and Puccinellia maritima. The availability of these food plants, however, reached critically low levels in mid-winter and the geese abandoned the low marsh for the high marsh. Within the high marsh, the plant communities selected tended to be dominated by the inedible species Limonium vulgare. The food plants selected were P. maritima in the winter and P. maritima and Triglochinmaritimum in the spring. On the high marsh, aggregative responses were shown to both P. maritima and T. maritimum, but in both cases, aggregation increased up to a critical level of biomass, and then declined. The prevention of grazing with exclosures for 3 years led to an increase in the abundance of P. maritima on both high and low marshes. This change was slight on high marsh but pronounced on low marsh, where S. europaea showed a decrease in abundance in the exclosures over this time. The implications of the aggregative responses for the population dynamics of P. maritima and S. europaea are discussed.