Spatial variation in vegetation damage relative to primary productivity, small rodent abundance and predation

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Abstract

The relative importance of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in shaping community structure is still a highly controversial topic in ecology. Predatory top-down control of herbivores is thought to relax herbivore impact on the vegetation through trophic cascades. However, trophic cascades may be weak in terrestrial systems as the complexity of food webs makes responses harder to predict. Alternatively, top-down control prevails, but the top-level (predator or herbivore) changes according to productivity levels. Here we show how spatial variation in the occurrence of herbivores (lemmings and voles) and their predators (mustelids and foxes) relates with grazing damage in landscapes with different net primary productivity, generating two and three trophic level communities, during the 2007 rodent peak in northern Norway. Lemmings were most abundant on the unproductive high-altitude tundra, where few predators were present and the impact of herbivores on vegetation was strong. Voles were most common on a productive, south facing slope, where numerous predators were present, and the impacts of herbivores on vegetation were weak. The impact of herbivores on the vegetation was strong only when predators were not present, and this cannot be explained by between-habitat differences in the abundance of plant functional groups. We thus conclude that predators influence the plant community via a trophic cascade in a spatial pattern that support the exploitation ecosystems hypothesis. The responses to grazing also differed between plant functional groups, with implications for short and long-term consequences for plant communities.

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