Experimental evidence for herbivore limitation of the treeline



The treeline ecotone divides forest from open alpine or arctic vegetation states. Treelines are generally perceived to be temperature limited. The role of herbivores in limiting the treeline is more controversial, as experimental evidence from relevant large scales is lacking. Here we quantify the impact of different experimentally controlled herbivore densities on the recruitment and survival of birch Betula pubescens tortuosa along an altitudinal gradient in the mountains of southern Norway. After eight years of summer grazing in large-scale enclosures at densities of 0, 25, and 80 sheep/km2, birch recruited within the whole altitudinal range of ungrazed enclosures, but recruitment was rarer in enclosures with low-density sheep and was largely limited to within the treeline in enclosures with high-density sheep. In contrast, the distribution of saplings (birch older than the experiment) did not differ between grazing treatments, suggesting that grazing sheep primarily limit the establishment of new tree recruits rather than decrease the survival of existing individuals. This study provides direct experimental evidence that herbivores can limit the treeline below its potential at the landscape scale and even at low herbivore densities in this climatic zone. Land use changes should thus be considered in addition to climatic changes as potential drivers of ecotone shifts.