1 Forest edges, which are prominent features in the north-eastern United States landscape, may control the flux of organisms between forest and non-forest habitats. Previous studies have described edge structure rather than function, as determined by interaction with such fluxes.
2 The function of the forest edge may be linked to the structure of its vegetation. We tested this hypothesis by experimentally altering the structure of the vegetation at two deciduous forest edges in Millbrook, New York, USA. Intact and thinned plots were established at each edge and we determined whether the structure of the edges influenced the flux of herbivores, as measured by herbivore damage to transplanted tree seedlings.
3 Herbivore damage to seedlings at site 1 was affected by edge vegetation structure and by distance from the edge. The edge structure effect was due to herbivory by voles, which was significantly greater in the intact than in the thinned treatment. Regardless of treatment, voles damaged seedlings only on the edge and 30–40 m from the edge and did no damage in the forest interior (90–100 m), whereas deer damaged significantly more seedlings in the forest interior than on the edge. At site 2, where vole damage was concentrated on the edge, damage to seedlings was affected only by distance from the edge, not edge structure.
4 The two dominant herbivores, white-tailed deer and meadow voles, preferentially damaged different seedling species. In addition, tree seedlings browsed by deer resprouted more frequently than those clipped by voles. Our results suggest that both edge structure and distance from the edge influence herbivore activity and, as a result, influence the spatial arrangement, density and composition of populations of tree seedlings during regeneration in forest fragments.