Evidence for top predator control of a grazing ecosystem

Authors

  • Douglas A. Frank


D. A. Frank (dafrank@syr.edu), Biological Research Labs, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244-1220, USA.

Abstract

The importance of top predators in controlling ecological processes in large, intact ecosystems is unclear. In grasslands that support abundant ungulates, top–down control by predators may be particularly important, because of the tight biogeochemical linkages of ungulate prey with plants and soil microbes. Here, I examined the effects of the recent reintroduction of the gray wolf Canis lupus on ecosystem processes in Yellowstone National Park, where herds of grazing ungulates previously have been shown to stimulate several processes, including soil net nitrogen (N) mineralization. Rates of ungulate grazing intensity and soil net N mineralization were compared before and after wolf reintroduction in grasslands ranging five-fold in aboveground production. Grazing intensity and grassland net N mineralization declined after wolf reintroduction, a likely partial function of fewer ungulates; wolf predation has been one of several factors implicated in causing the decline in Yellowstone ungulates. In addition, the spatial pattern of grazing and net N mineralization changed after reintroduction. A shift in the spatial patterns of grazer-associated processes is consistent with a growing body of work indicating that wolves have changed habitat use patterns of ungulates in Yellowstone National Park. These findings suggest widespread wolf effects on ungulate prey, plants, and microbial activity that have spatially reorganized grassland energy and nutrient dynamics in Yellowstone Park.

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