Small mammal herbivory: Feedbacks that help maintain desertified ecosystems

TitleSmall mammal herbivory: Feedbacks that help maintain desertified ecosystems
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsRoth G.A., Whitford WG, Steinberger Y
JournalJournal of Arid Environments
Start Page62
Date Published01/2009
Accession NumberJRN00529
ARIS Log Number236082
Keywordsbrowsing, desertification, herbivory, jackrabbit, livestock grazing, snakeweed

We tested the hypothesis that herbivores contribute to feedbacks maintaining arid ecosystems in a degraded state. We studied small mammal herbivory on a subshrub, broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), and perennial grasses at three sites: (1) ungrazed black grama (Bouteloua eriopoda) grassland; (2) grassland degraded by intense short-duration grazing; and (3) mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) coppice dunes. Snakeweed was browsed by herbivores primarily during dry winter months. The average percent of G. sarothrae standing crop biomass removed by browsing was 9.2 in ungrazed grassland, 7.4 in intensely grazed grassland, and 4.1 in the dunes. In ungrazed grassland, an average of 12% of grass cover was harvested by herbivores; in the intensely grazed plots – 80%. Herbivore exclusion plots showed that jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) were the primary browsers on snakeweed and rodents on grasses and G. sarothrae inflorescences. Rodent removal of G. sarothrae inflorescences allows wind dispersal of seeds in disturbed and desertified areas, thereby increasing abundance of this poisonous shrub. Grass-tiller cutting by rodents provides a strong feedback that may be responsible for keeping the grass cover low on the intensely grazed areas. Jackrabbit pruning has little effect on G. sarothrae abundance at any stage of desertification.