Influences of chronic and current season grazing by collared pikas on above-ground biomass and species richness in subarctic alpine meadows
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- McIntire, E.J.B. & Hik, D.S. Oecologia (2005) 145: 287. doi:10.1007/s00442-005-0127-z
We studied an alpine herbivory gradient established by collared pikas, a small central place foraging lagomorph, to examine the effects of multiple grazing levels on above-ground live biomass (AGB) and species richness (SR) in alpine tundra. The effects of within-season (four sampling periods), multi-season (across three summers) and longer-term dynamics (inferred from spatial location of vegetation with respect to pika haypiles) were examined. Along the grazing gradient, we found support for and against hypotheses that propose biphasic, increasing, or decreasing responses to herbivory, both in terms of AGB and SR. Our results suggest that plant–herbivore predictability is still weak. To further examine the impact of herbivory, we experimentally removed pikas using mesh exclosures placed at increasing distance from the edge of talus occupied by pikas. AGB after the second consecutive year of herbivore exclusion increased by 125% compared to control plots in highly grazed areas adjacent to talus (<1 m). In more lightly grazed sites at distances 1–6 m from talus, AGB increased by more than 40% after pikas were removed. No differences were observed in the ungrazed sites >6 m from talus. AGB was highest in meadow patches previously grazed by pikas compared to those with little grazing history, but this response was only observed after two seasons following release from herbivory. Grazed sites at distances of 1–6 m had the highest SR. These results indicate that multi-year measurements of growth are particularly relevant in ecosystems dominated by long-lived perennials in regions where productivity is low. Infrequent herbivore vacancies may provide local short-term release from pika grazing, thereby contributing to the persistence of productive, highly palatable vegetation.