Additive Partitioning of Diversity Reveals No Scale-dependent Impacts of Large Ungulates on the Structure of Tundra Plant Communities

Abstract

Large herbivores can change ecosystem functioning by impacting plant diversity. However, although such impacts are expected to be scale-dependent in ecosystems with wide-roaming ungulates, scaling issues rarely enter empirical assessments. We here test the hypothesis that the impact of increased reindeer abundance on plant diversity in alpine tundra is scale-dependent. Based on potentially high productivity of the focal habitat units and hence the possibility of positive grazer impacts on plant diversity we predicted higher α and β diversity at the habitat scale where reindeer densities are high. We also explored whether there were differences in diversity patterns at larger scales, including the scale of reindeer management districts. We estimated grazing disturbance as high versus low reindeer density in selected districts (a total extent of 7421 km2) of Northern Norway where reindeer-induced vegetation shifts are debated. We focus on dominance patterns because they can quantify the vegetation state and thus performed additive partitioning of Simpson diversity on multiple scales assessing also species’ contributions to diversity. Contrary to our predictions, we found only weak scale-dependent effects of reindeer grazing on plant diversity. Under high reindeer densities there was evidence for a landscape-scale homogenization of the vegetation, but the predicted α and β diversity increases at the habitat scale were not found. Consistently through all scales considered, four shrub species contributed the most to plant diversity. These results contradict the idea that reindeer at high stocking densities induce shifts in plant species dominance in productive habitats. We conclude that context-dependencies such as spatial scales of management units and habitat types need to be explicitly considered in evaluations of the impacts of large ungulates on plant diversity.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Raphaël Pélissier for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article; Johan Olofsson, Rene Van der Wal, and one anonymuous referee for constructive criticisms; the Norwegian Coast Guard, Mette Nielsen, Tina Dahl, and Alina Evans for field assistance; Asle Lilletun for technical assistance; and participants in the project “Ecosystem Finnmark” for discussions. This study is a contribution from the “Ecosystem Finnmark” project and was financed by the Norwegian Research Council.

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Correspondence to V. T. Ravolainen.

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All authors contributed to design the study; Ravolainen VT, Bråthen KA, VT Gonzales, and Iversen M performed research; Ravolainen VT, Yoccoz NG, and Bråthen KA analyzed data; and Ravolainen VT wrote the article with contributions from all the authors.

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Ravolainen, V.T., Yoccoz, N.G., Bråthen, K.A. et al. Additive Partitioning of Diversity Reveals No Scale-dependent Impacts of Large Ungulates on the Structure of Tundra Plant Communities. Ecosystems 13, 157–170 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-009-9308-7

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Keywords

  • grazing
  • tundra ecosystem
  • shrub dominance
  • abundant reindeer
  • productivity gradients
  • landscape elements
  • management scale
  • Fennoscandia