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Meta-analysis of the effects of small mammal disturbances on species diversity, richness and plant biomass



The disturbance activities of many small mammals, including building burrows, mounds, trails and tunnels, and herbivory, can have significant impacts on their ecosystems, both through trophic and non-trophic interactions. Some species have large enough impacts through their disturbances to be classed as ecosystem engineers and/or keystone species. Others have negative or null effects. However, at present it is difficult to predict whether the disturbances created by a given species will have significant effects on common measures of ecosystem response such as species richness, diversity and biomass. We ask whether variables characterizing disturbance type, responding species, disturbance-making species and the environment can predict changes in magnitude and direction of effects on biomass, richness and diversity. We test these predictions with a meta-analysis of 106 data entries in a database derived from 63 papers, representing 40 small mammal species. We find that small mammal disturbances in general increase biomass, and both increase and decrease richness and diversity. We also identify individual environmental, disturbance-related, and species-related variables associated with these changes in magnitude and direction. We discuss the likely interactions between these variables, and how current proxy measures of disturbance impact could be replaced by more accurate direct measures. We recommend that future studies focus on conditions characterized by combinations of variables we identify as significant, in order to understand how these variable interactions (which cannot be analysed through meta-analysis) affect disturbance outcomes. Based on the gaps in our database and results, we also recommend that future studies directly measure disturbance impact, measure disturbance effects on animal and well as plant taxa, and take measurements on multiple scales.