Plant and Soil

, Volume 411, Issue 1–2, pp 423–436 | Cite as

Grazing by bison is a stronger driver of plant ecohydrology in tallgrass prairie than fire history

  • Kimberly O’KeefeEmail author
  • Jesse B. Nippert
Regular Article


Background and Aims

Fire and grazing are important disturbances in grasslands, yet we know little about how they impact a variety of plant physiological processes such as plant ecohydrology. Here, we assessed the impact of fire history and grazing by Bison bison on the source of water uptake and niche overlap in common grassland species at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, a temperate mesic grassland located in northeastern Kansas, USA.


We used the stable isotopic signature of soil and xylem water to evaluate water uptake in Andropogon gerardii, Vernonia baldwinii, Amorpha canescens, and Rhus glabra within varying grazing (grazed, ungrazed), fire (0,1,2 or 3 years since last burn), topography (upland, lowland), and month (July, August) contrasts over 3 years (2013–2015).


The presence of grazers, not fire history, altered water uptake patterns in these common grassland species. Particularly, grazing increased the proportion of shallow water utilized by A. gerardii and R. glabra, reducing niche overlap with other co-occurring species. However, these responses varied intra-annually and were often modulated by topography.


These results suggest that grazing can alter aspects of grassland ecohydrology at small scales, which may extend to impact community and ecosystem processes at larger spatial scales.


Fire Herbivory Stable isotopes Source water Niche overlap Mesic grassland 



We would like to thank Braden Hoch, Andy Muench, Rachel Keen, Ben Ketter, Patrick O’Neal, Lindsey Swartz, Jeff Taylor, and Josh Taylor for their help with sample collection and data processing. We also thank Tony Joern for helpful comments on the manuscript. Funding was provided for K. O’Keefe by the Kansas State University NSF GK-12 program (Grant #NSF DGE-0841414) and a Prairie Biotic Research Small Grant. Funding for both K. O’Keefe and J. Nippert was provided by the Konza Prairie LTER program (NSF DEB-1440484).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11104_2016_3048_MOESM1_ESM.docx (332 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 331 kb)


  1. Anderson RH, Fuhlendorf SD, Engle DM (2006) Soil nitrogen availability in tallgrass prairie under the fire-grazing interaction. Rangel Ecol Manage 59:625–631. doi: 10.2111/05-088R2.1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Archer S, Detling JK (1986) Evaluation of potential herbivore mediation of plant water status in a North-American mixed-grass prairie. Oikos 47:287–291. doi: 10.2307/3565439 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Archibald S, Bond WJ, Stock WD, Fairbanks DHK (2005) Shaping the landscape: fire-grazer interactions in an African savanna. Ecol Appl 15:96–109. doi: 10.1890/03-5210 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Asbjornsen H, Shepherd G, Helmers M, Mora G (2008) Seasonal patterns in depth of water uptake under contrasting annual and perennial systems in the corn belt region of the Midwestern US. Plant Soil 308:69–92. doi: 10.1007/s11104-008-9607-3 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bartoń K (2009) MuMIn: multi-model inference. R package, version 0.12.2Google Scholar
  6. Bates D, Maechler M, Bolker B, Walker S (2014) lme4: Linear mixed-effects models using eigen and S4. R package version 1Google Scholar
  7. Belsky JA (1992) Effects of grazing, competition, disturbance and fire on species composition and diversity in grassland communities. J Veg Sci 3:187–200. doi: 10.2307/3235679 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bond WJ, Keeley JE (2005) Fire as a global ‘herbivore’: the ecology and evolution of flammable ecosystems. Trends Ecol Evol 20:387–394. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2205.04.025 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Briggs JM, Knapp AK (1995) Interannual variability in primary production in tallgrass prairie - climate, soil-moisture, topographic position, and fire as determinants of aboveground biomass. Am J Bot 82:1024–1030. doi: 10.2307/2446232 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Briggs JM, Knapp AK, Brock BL (2002) Expansion of woody plants in tallgrass prairie: a fifteen-year study of fire and fire-grazing interactions. Am Midl Nat 147:287–294. doi: 10.1674/0003-0031(2002)147[0287:EOWPIT]2.0.CO;2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Briggs JM, Knapp AK, Blair JM, Heisler JL, Hoch GA, Lett MS, McCarron JK (2005) An ecosystem in transition causes and consequences of the conversion of mesic grassland to shrubland. Bioscience 55:243–254. doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0243:AEITCA]2.0.CO;2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (2004) Multimodel inference understanding AIC and BIC in model selection. Sociol Methods Res 33:261–304. doi: 10.1177/0049124104268644 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cingolani AM, Noy-Meir I, Diaz S (2005) Grazing effects on rangeland diversity: a synthesis of contemporary models. Ecol Appl 15:717–773. doi: 10.1890/03-5272 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Collins SL (1992) Fire frequency and community heterogeneity in tallgrass prairie vegetation. Ecology 73:2001–2006. doi: 10.2307/1941450 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Collins SL, Calabrese LB (2012) Effects of fire, grazing and topographic variation on vegetation structure in tallgrass prairie. J Veg Sci 23:563–575. doi: 10.1111/j.1654-1103.2011.01369.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Collins SL, Smith MD (2006) Scale-dependent interaction of fire and grazing on community heterogeneity in tallgrass prairie. Ecology 87:2058–2067. doi: 10.1890/0012-9658(2006)87[2058:SIOFAG]2.0.CO;2 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Collins SL, Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Blair JM, Steinauer EM (1998) Modulation of diversity by grazing and mowing in native tallgrass prairie. Science 280:745–747. doi: 10.1126/science.280.5364.745 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Colwell RK, Futuyma DJ (1971) On the measurement of niche breadth and overlap. Ecology 52:567–576. doi: 10.2307/1934144 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Coppedge BR, Shaw JH (1998) Bison grazing patterns on seasonally burned tallgrass prairie. J Range Manag 51:258–264. doi: 10.2307/4003408 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. R Core Team (2012) R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. ISBN 3-900051-07-0.
  21. Detling JK, Dyer MI, Winn DT (1979) Net photosynthesis, root respiration, and regrowth of Bouteloua-gracilis following simulated grazing. Oecologia 41:127–134. doi: 10.1007/BF00344997 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Eby S, Burkepile DE, Fynn RWS, Burns CE, Govender N, Hagenah N, Koerner SE, Matchett KJ, Thompson DI, Wilcox KR, Collins SL, Kirkman KP, Knapp AK, Smith MD (2014) Loss of a large grazer impacts savanna grassland plant communities similarly in North America and South Africa. Oecologia 175:293–303. doi: 10.1007/s00442-014-2895-9 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Ehleringer JR, Osmond CB (1989) Stable isotopes. In: Pearcy RW, Ehleringer JR, Mooney HA, Rundell PW (eds) Plant physiological ecology: filed methods and instrumentation. Chapman & Hall, London, pp 281–300CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fahnestock JT, Knapp AK (1993) Water relations and growth of tallgrass prairie forbs in response to selective grass herbivory by bison. Int J Plant Sci 154:432–440. doi: 10.1086/297126 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fahnestock JT, Knapp AK (1994) Plant-responses to selective grazing by bison - interactions between light, herbivory and water-stress. Vegetatio 115:123–131. doi: 10.1007/BF00044867 Google Scholar
  26. Fuhlendorf SD, Engle DM (2001) Restoring heterogeneity on rangelands: ecosystem management based on evolutionary grazing patterns. Bioscience 51:625–632. doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2001)051[0625:RHOREM]2.0.CO;2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Fuhlendorf SD, Engle DM (2004) Application of the fire-grazing interaction to restore a shifting mosaic on tallgrass prairie. J Appl Ecol 41:604–614. doi: 10.1111/j.0021-8901.2004.00937.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gelman A, Su YS, Yajima M, Hill J, Pittau MG, Kerman J, Zheng T., Dorie V (2009) arm: data analysis using regression and multi- level ⁄ hierarchical models. R package, version 9.01. Available at:
  29. Greenwood KL, McKenzie BM (2001) Grazing effects on soil physical properties and the consequences for pastures: a review. Anim Prod Sci 41:1231–1250. doi: 10.1071/EA00102 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Grossiord C, Gessler A, Granier A, Berger S, Brechet C, Hentschel R, Hommel R, Scherer-Lorenzen M, Bonal D (2014) Impact of interspecific interactions on the soil water uptake depth in a young temperate mixed species plantation. J Hydrol 519:3511–3519. doi: 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2014.11.011 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Grueber CE, Nakagawa S, Laws RJ, Jamieson IG (2011) Multimodel inference in ecology and evolution: challenges and solutions. J Evol Biol 24:699–711. doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02210.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Hamilton RG (2007) Restoring heterogeneity on the tallgrass prairie preserve: applying the fire–grazing interaction model. In: Master RE, Galley KEM (eds) Proceedings of the 23rd tall timbers fire ecology conference: fire in grassland and shrubland ecosystems. Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, pp 163–169Google Scholar
  33. Hamza MA, Anderson WK (2005) Soil compaction in cropping systems: a review of the nature, causes and possible solutions. Soil Tillage Res 82:121–145. doi: 10.1016/j.still.2004.08.009 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Harrison MT, Kelman WM, Moore AD, Evans JR (2010) Grazing winter wheat relieves plant water stress and transiently enhances photosynthesis. Funct Plant Biol 37:726–736. doi: 10.1071/FP10040 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hartnett DC, Hickman KR, Walter LEF (1996) Effects of bison grazing, fire, and topography on floristic diversity in tallgrass prairie. J Range Manage 49:413–420. doi: 10.2307/4002922 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hodgkinson KC (1992) Water relations and growth of shrubs before and after fire in a semi-arid woodland. Oecologia 90:467–473. doi: 10.1007/BF01875439 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hoekstra NJ, Finn JA, Hofer D, Luescher A (2014) The effect of drought and interspecific interactions on depth of water uptake in deep- and shallow-rooting grassland species as determined by δ18O natural abundance. Biogeosciences 11:4493–4506. doi: 10.5194/bg-11-4493-2014 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hulbert LC (1969) Fire and litter effects in undisturbed bluestem prairie in Kansas. Ecology 50:874–877. doi: 10.2307/1933702 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Jantz DR, Harner RF, Rowland HT, Grier DA (1975) Soil survey of Riley County and part of Geary County, Kansas. United States Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service in cooperation with Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  40. Johnson LC, Matchett JR (2001) Fire and grazing regulate belowground processes in tallgrass prairie. Ecology 82:3377–3389. doi: 10.1890/0012-9658(2001)082[3377:FAGRBP]2.0.CO;2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kitchen JD, Blair JM, Callahan MA (2009) Annual fire and mowing alter biomass, depth distribution, and C and N content of roots and soil in tallgrass prairie. Plant Soil 323:235–247. doi: 10.1007/s11104-009-9931-2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Klumpp K, Fontaine S, Attard E, Le Roux X, Gleixner G, Soussana J (2009) Grazing triggers soil carbon loss by altering plant roots and their control on soil microbial community. J Ecol 97:876–885. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2009.01549.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Knapp AK (1984) Post-burn differences in solar-radiation, leaf temperature and water-stress influencing production in a lowland tallgrass prairie. Am J Bot 71:220–227. doi: 10.2307/2443749 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Knapp AK (1985) Effect of fire and drought on the ecophysiology of Andropogon gerardii and Panicum virgatum in a tallgrass prairie. Ecology 66:1309–1320. doi: 10.2307/1939184 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Knapp AK, Blair JM, Briggs JM, Collins SL, Hartnett DC, Johnson LC, Towne EG (1999) The keystone role of bison in North American tallgrass prairie. Bioscience 49:39–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kulmatiski A, Beard KH (2013) Root niche partitioning among grasses, saplings, and trees measured using a tracer technique. Oecologia 171:25–37. doi: 10.1007/s00442-012-2390-0 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Kunert N, Schwendenmann L, Potvin C, Hölscher D (2012) Tree diversity enhances tree transpiration in a Panamanian forest plantation. J Appl Ecol 49:135–144. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2011.02065x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. McMurphy WE, Anderson KL (1965) Burning Flint Hills range. J Range Manage 18:265–269. doi: 10.2307/3895495 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Meißner M, Köhler M, Schwendenmann L, Hölscher D (2012) Partitioning of soil water among canopy trees during a soil desiccation period in a temperate mixed forest. Biogeosciences 9:3465–3474. doi: 10.5194/bg-9-3465-2012 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Milchunas DG, Sala OE, Lauenroth WK (1988) A generalized model of the effects of grazing by large herbivores on grassland community structure. Am Nat 132:87–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Naeth MA, Bailey AW, Pluth DJ, Chanasyk DS, Hardin RT (1991) Grazing impacts on litter and soil organic matter in mixed prairie and fescue grassland ecosystems of Alberta. J Range Manage 44:7–12. doi: 10.2307/4002629 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nippert JB, Knapp AK (2007a) Linking water uptake with rooting patterns in grassland species. Oecologia 153:261–272. doi: 10.1007/s00442-007-0745-8 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Nippert JB, Knapp AK (2007b) Soil water partitioning contributes to species coexistence in tallgrass prairie. Oikos 116:1017–1029. doi: 10.1111/j.2007.0030-1299.15630.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Nippert JB, Fay PA, Carlisle JD, Knapp AK, Smith MD (2009) Ecophysiological responses of two dominant grasses to altered temperature and precipitation regimes. Acta Oecol 35:400–408. doi: 10.1016/j.actao.2009.01.010 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Nippert JB, Wieme RA, Ocheltree TW, Craine JM (2012) Root characteristics of C4 grasses limit reliance on deep soil water in tallgrass prairie. Plant Soil 355:385–394. doi: 10.1007/s11104-011-1112-4 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Nippert JB, Ocheltree TW, Orozco GL, Ratajczak Z, Ling B, Skibbe AM (2013) Evidence of physiological decoupling from grassland ecosystem drivers by an encroaching woody shrub. PLoS ONE 8(12), e81630. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081630 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  57. Noy-Meir I (1995) Interactive effects of fire and grazing on structure and diversity of Mediterranean grasslands. J Veg Sci 6:701–710. doi: 10.2307/3236441 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Oviatt CG (1998) Geomorphology of Konza Prairie. In: Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Hartnett DC, Collins SL (eds) Grassland dynamics: long-term ecological research in tallgrass prairie. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 35–47Google Scholar
  59. Painter E, Detling JK (1981) Effects of defoliation on net photosynthesis and regrowth of western wheatgrass. J Range Manage 34:68–71. doi: 10.2307/3898458 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Parnell AC, Inger R, Bearhop S, Jackson AL (2010) Source partitioning using stable isotopes: coping with too much variation. PLoS One 5, e9672. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009672 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  61. Peng Y, Jiang GM, Liu XH, Niu SL, Liu MZ, Biswas DK (2007) Photosynthesis, transpiration and water use efficiency of four plant species with grazing intensities in Hunshandak Sandland, China. J Arid Environ 70:304–315. doi: 10.1016/j.jaridenv.2007.01.002 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Plumb GE, Dodd JL (1993) Foraging ecology of bison and cattle on a mixed prairie: implications for natural area management. Ecol Appl 3:631–643. doi: 10.2307/1942096 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Potts DL, Suding KN, Winston GC, Rocha AV, Goulden ML (2012) Ecological effects of experimental drought and prescribed fire in a southern California coastal grassland. J Arid Environ 81:59–66. doi: 10.1016/j.aridenv.2012.01.007 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Priyadarshini KVR, Prins HHT, de Bie S, Heitkönig IMA, Woodborne S, Gort G, Kirkman K, Ludwig F, Dawson TE, de Kroon H (2015) Seasonality of hydraulic redistribution by trees to grasses and changes in their water‐source use that change tree–grass interactions. Ecohydrology 9:218–228. doi: 10.1002/eco.1624 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Seastedt TR, Briggs JM, Gibson DJ (1991) Controls of nitrogen limitation in tallgrass prairie. Oecologia 87:72–79. doi: 10.1007/BF00323782 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Silvertown J, Dodd ME, Gowing DJ, Mountford JO (1999) Hydrologically defined niches reveal a basis for species richness in plant communities. Nature 400:61–63. doi: 10.1038/21877 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Smith MD, Knapp AK (2003) Dominant species maintain ecosystem function with non-random species loss. Ecol Lett 6:509–517. doi: 10.1046/j.1461-0248.2003.00454.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Svejcar T, Christiansen S (1987) Grazing effects on water relations of caucasian bluestem. J Range Manage 40:15–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Tucker SS, Craine JM, Nippert JB (2011) Physiological drought tolerance and the structuring of tallgrass prairie assemblages. Ecosphere 2:UNSP 48. doi:  10.1890/ES11-00023.1
  70. Turner CL, Kneisler JR, Knapp AK (1995) Comparative gas-exchange and nitrogen responses of the dominant C4 grass andropogon-gerardii and 5 C3 forbs to fire and topographic position in tallgrass prairie during a wet year. Int J Plant Sci 156:216–226. doi: 10.1086/297243 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Uys RG, Bond WJ, Everson TM (2004) The effect of different fire regimes on plant diversity in southern African grasslands. Biol Conserv 118:489–499. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2003.09.024 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Valverde-Barrantes OJ, Smemo KA, Feinstein LM, Kershner MW, Blackwood CB (2013) The distribution of below-ground traits is explained by intrinsic species differences and intraspecific plasticity in response to root neighbours. J Ecol 101:933–942. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12087 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Van der Hoek DJ, Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Bokdam J (2002) White-tailed deer browsing on six shrub species of tallgrass prairie. Great Plains Res 12:141–156Google Scholar
  74. Veen GF, Blair JM, Smith MD, Collins SL (2008) Influence of grazing and fire frequency on small-scale plant community structure and resource variability in native tallgrass prairie. Oikos 117:859–866. doi: 10.1111/j.2008.0030-1299.16515.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Verheyen K, Bulteel H, Palmborg C, Olivié B, Nijs I, Raes D, Muys B (2008) Can complementarity in water use help to explain diversity–productivity relationships in experimental grassland plots? Oecologia 156:351–361. doi: 10.1007/s00442-008-0998-x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  76. Vinton MA, Hartnett DC, Finck EJ, Briggs JM (1993) Interactive effects of fire, bison (Bison-bison) grazing and plant community composition in tallgrass prairie. Am Midl Nat 129:10–18. doi: 10.2307/2426430 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. von Felten S, Hector A, Buchmann N, Niklaus PA, Schmid B, Scherer-Lorenzen M (2009) Belowground nitrogen partitioning in experimental grassland plant communities of varying species richness. Ecology 90:1389–1399. doi: 10.1890/08-0802.1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Wallace LL (1990) Comparative photosynthetic responses of big bluestem to clipping versus grazing. J Range Manage 43:58–61. doi: 10.2307/3899122 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Ward D, Wiegand K, Getzin S (2013) Walter’s two-layer hypothesis revisited: back to the roots! Oecologia 172:617–630. doi: 10.1007/s00442-012-2538-y CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Weaver JE (1968) Prairie plants and their environment: a fifty-year study in the Midwest. University of Nebraska Press, LincolnGoogle Scholar
  81. Weaver JE, Albertson FW (1943) Resurvey of grasses, forbs, and underground plant parts at the end of the great drought. Ecol Monogr 13:63–117. doi: 10.2307/1943590 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of BiologyKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA

Personalised recommendations