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Reversal of fortune: plant suppression and recovery after vole herbivory

Howe, Henry F.
Oecologia 2008 v.157 no.2 pp. 279-286
Desmodium, Elymus virginicus, Microtus ochrogaster, Microtus pennsylvanicus, Rudbeckia, adults, analysis of variance, food plants, forage, grasses, ground cover plants, growing season, herbivores, legumes, prairies, rye, stems, voles
It is not clear how plant species preferred as forage by rodents persist in prairie vegetation. To test permanence of suppression of wet-mesic prairie vegetation by vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) herbivory in synthetic experimental communities, access treatments were reversed after 9 years of vole exclusion or access. Between 1996 and 2004, rye grass Elymus virginicus (Poaceae) and tick-trefoil Desmodium canadense (Fabaceae) achieved mean cover of up to 30 and 25%, respectively, in plots where voles were excluded, but disappeared from plots where voles had access. To determine whether these species remained vulnerable to vole herbivory as established adults, and to determine whether the species could recover if vole herbivory were removed, access treatments were reversed at the end of the 2004 growing season and monitored through 2007. Repeated measures ANOVA demonstrated dramatic vole suppression of established E. virginicus, but not D. canadense, indicating continuing vulnerability of the grass but not of the adult legume. Release from vole herbivory resulted in re-growth of rye, but not tick-trefoil, which was apparently suppressed by established vegetation. Two additional common planted species did not respond to treatment reversal, nor did 11 much less common planted species that comprised a minor portion of the vegetation. Dominant perennial black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia subtomentosa (Asteraceae) did not change in plant numbers by year or treatment, but expanded or contracted in stems per plant and cover as E. virginicus was suppressed or released by vole herbivory or its absence. Results indicate that preferred food plants may persist through capacity to quickly recover during periods of relative vole scarcity, or reach a refuge in maturity.