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Keywords:

  • grass abundance;
  • high-arctic Spitsbergen;
  • indirect grazing effects;
  • moss insulation;
  • nutrient enrichment;
  • Svalbard Reindeer

Summary

  • 1
    Large herbivores have significant impacts on the structure and function of temperate and tropical ecosystems. Yet herbivore impacts on arctic systems, particularly the mechanisms by which they influence plant communities, are largely unknown.
  • 2
    High arctic vegetation, commonly overlying permafrost soils, is often moss-dominated with sparse vascular plant cover. We investigated the potential influence of large herbivores on arctic plant communities via their impact on the depth of the moss layer, leading to warmer soils and potentially benefiting vascular plants.
  • 3
    We found that grazer impacts on moss depth, and subsequently soil temperature, may influence vascular plant abundance and community composition because of the observed positive but growth-form-specific response of vascular plants to soil warming, promoting grasses in particular.
  • 4
    We propose that the positive association of grasses and large herbivores in arctic moss-dominated systems results from two simultaneously operating positive feedback loops. First, herbivore grazing and trampling reduces moss layer depth, increasing soil temperatures. Second, grasses benefit directly from grazers as a result of additional nutrients from faeces and urine. Additionally, the tolerance of grasses to grazing may enable grasses to expand despite the losses suffered from herbivory.