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Cape ground squirrels as ecosystem engineers: modifying habitat for plants, small mammals and beetles in Namib Desert grasslands

Ewacha, Michelle V. A., Kaapehi, Corris, Waterman, Jane M., Roth, James D.
African journal of ecology 2016 v.54 no.1 pp. 68-75
Xerus inauris, animal communities, biogeography, burrowing, burrows, ecosystem engineers, foraging, grasslands, habitats, pitfall traps, predators, small mammals, species diversity, squirrels, summer, temperature, winter
Burrowing and foraging of semi‐fossorial rodents can affect species distribution and composition. Ground squirrels dig large burrow systems for refuge from predators and temperature extremes. Burrowing and foraging around burrows by squirrels may affect habitat and resource distributions for other organisms. We examined the impact of Cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) on vegetation, small mammals and beetles during winter and summer in grasslands on the edge of the Namib Desert. At each burrow system and paired control site without burrows, we estimated plant cover and height using quadrats (N = 8 paired sites), small mammal abundance and species richness using mark‐recapture techniques (N = 8 paired sites) and beetle abundance and species richness using pitfall traps (N = 6 paired sites, winter only). Squirrel burrowing and foraging activities resulted in lower plant cover and height, higher small mammal abundance and lower beetle abundance and species richness. Squirrels also reduced more plant cover in winter compared to summer, but had no effect on small mammal species richness. Furthermore, plant cover and height were higher in summer, whereas small mammal abundance and species richness were higher in winter. Our results suggest that Cape ground squirrels are important ecosystem engineers that influence plant and animal communities in the Namib Desert grasslands.