Long-Term Regional Shifts in Plant Community Composition Are Largely Explained by Local Deer Impact Experiments

Long-Term Regional Shifts in Plant Community Composition Are Largely Explained by Local Deer Impact Experiments
PlosOne, Dec 31, 2014

The fact that herbivores and predators exert top-down effects to alter community composition and dynamics at lower trophic levels is no longer controversial, yet we still lack evidence of the full nature, extent, and longer-term effects of these impacts. Here, we use results from a set of replicated experiments on the local impacts of white-tailed deer to evaluate the extent to which such impacts could account for half-century shifts in forest plant communities across the upper Midwest, USA. We measured species’ responses to deer at four sites using 10–20 year-old deer exclosures. Among common species, eight were more abundant outside the exclosures, seven were commoner inside, and 16 had similar abundances in- and outside. Deer herbivory greatly increased the abundance of ferns and graminoids and doubled the abundance of exotic plants. In contrast, deer greatly reduced tree regeneration, shrub cover (100–200 fold in two species), plant height, plant reproduction, and the abundance of forbs. None of 36 focal species increased in reproduction or grew taller in the presence of deer, contrary to expectations. We compared these results to data on 50-year regional shifts in species abundances across 62 sites. The effects of herbivory by white-tailed deer accurately account for many of the long-term regional shifts observed in species’ abundances (R2 = 0.41). These results support the conjecture that deer impacts have driven many of the regional shifts in forest understory cover and composition observed in recent decades.