Late snow melt moderates herbivore disturbance of the Arctic tundra

Helen B Anderson, James D M Speed, Jesper Madsen, Åshild Pedersen, Ingunn Tombre, Rene Van Der Wal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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Abstract

Resilience of tundra vegetation to disturbance by herbivores can be low and lead to ecosystem state shifts. Pink-footed geese Anser brachyrhynchus are the most numerous herbivore on Svalbard and disturb vegetation when foraging for below-ground plant biomass (grubbing). We assessed grubbing extent (occurrence of vegetation disturbance) and intensity (proportion of vegetation disturbed) in 2006/07/08 when goose numbers were approximately 56,000 and in 2013 when they increased to approximately 81,000. Despite a 36% increase in population size, in 2013 the grubbing extent at pre-breeding sites was similar to that in 2007/08 but grubbing intensity was lower. Extensive snow cover in 2013 probably dispersed geese over larger areas in search of snow-free patches for feeding, thereby reducing grubbing intensity. At the largest known breeding site, both grubbing extent and intensity increased with more geese. Birds preferentially fed close to nests in previously grubbed wet habitat, probably aiding nest defence and permitting feeding on plants that were easier to remove from the soil. A greater impact on tundra vegetation may occur at nesting areas if the breeding population continues to grow. However, timing of snowmelt appears key in moderating the impact of disturbance on tundra vegetation since it controls spatial distributions of feeding geese.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-39
Number of pages11
JournalEcoscience
Volume23
Issue number1-2
Early online date20 Oct 2016
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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tundra
herbivore
snow
melt
disturbance
vegetation
breeding site
nest
breeding population
snowmelt
snow cover
population size
spatial distribution
bird
ecosystem
biomass
habitat
soil

Keywords

  • herbivory
  • vegetation shifts
  • population increase
  • environmental factors
  • climatic change

Cite this

Late snow melt moderates herbivore disturbance of the Arctic tundra. / Anderson, Helen B; Speed, James D M; Madsen, Jesper; Pedersen, Åshild; Tombre, Ingunn; Van Der Wal, Rene.

In: Ecoscience, Vol. 23, No. 1-2, 2016, p. 29-39.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Anderson, Helen B ; Speed, James D M ; Madsen, Jesper ; Pedersen, Åshild ; Tombre, Ingunn ; Van Der Wal, Rene. / Late snow melt moderates herbivore disturbance of the Arctic tundra. In: Ecoscience. 2016 ; Vol. 23, No. 1-2. pp. 29-39.
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AB - Resilience of tundra vegetation to disturbance by herbivores can be low and lead to ecosystem state shifts. Pink-footed geese Anser brachyrhynchus are the most numerous herbivore on Svalbard and disturb vegetation when foraging for below-ground plant biomass (grubbing). We assessed grubbing extent (occurrence of vegetation disturbance) and intensity (proportion of vegetation disturbed) in 2006/07/08 when goose numbers were approximately 56,000 and in 2013 when they increased to approximately 81,000. Despite a 36% increase in population size, in 2013 the grubbing extent at pre-breeding sites was similar to that in 2007/08 but grubbing intensity was lower. Extensive snow cover in 2013 probably dispersed geese over larger areas in search of snow-free patches for feeding, thereby reducing grubbing intensity. At the largest known breeding site, both grubbing extent and intensity increased with more geese. Birds preferentially fed close to nests in previously grubbed wet habitat, probably aiding nest defence and permitting feeding on plants that were easier to remove from the soil. A greater impact on tundra vegetation may occur at nesting areas if the breeding population continues to grow. However, timing of snowmelt appears key in moderating the impact of disturbance on tundra vegetation since it controls spatial distributions of feeding geese.

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