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Rapid response of a grassland ecosystem to an experimental manipulation of a keystone rodent and domestic livestock

Davidson, Ana D., Ponce, Eduardo, Lightfoot, David C., Fredrickson, Ed L., Brown, James H., Cruzado, Juan, Brantley, Sandra L., Sierra-Corona, Rodrigo, List, Rurik, Toledo, David, Ceballos, Gerardo
Ecology 2010 v.91 no.11 pp. 3189
Cynomys, Dipodomys, animal ecology, bison, burrowing, cattle, community structure, ecological function, ecosystems, grasshoppers, grasslands, grazing, herbivores, rodents, Mexico
Megaherbivores and small burrowing mammals commonly co-exist and play important functional roles in grassland ecosystems worldwide. The interactive effects of these two functional groups of herbivores in shaping the structure and function of grassland ecosystems are poorly understood. In North America’s central grasslands, domestic cattle (Bos taurus) have supplanted bison (Bison bison), and now co-exist with prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.), a keystone burrowing rodent. Understanding the ecological relationships between cattle and prairie dogs and their independent and interactive effects is essential to understanding the ecology and important conservation issues affecting North American grassland ecosystems. To address these needs, we established a long-term manipulative experiment that separates the independent and interactive effects of prairie dogs and cattle using a 2 x 2 factorial design. Our study is located in the Janos-Casas Grandes region of northwestern Chihuahua, Mexico, which supports one of the largest remaining complexes of black-tailed prairie dogs (C. ludovicianus). Two years of post-treatment data show nearly 2-fold increases in prairie dog abundance on plots grazed by cattle compared to plots without cattle. This positive effect of cattle on prairie dogs resulted in synergistic impacts when they occurred together. Vegetation height was significantly lower on the plots where both species co-occurred compared to where either or both species was absent. The treatments also significantly affected abundance and composition of other grassland animal species, including grasshoppers and banner-tailed kangaroo rats. Our results demonstrate that two different functional groups of herbivorous mammals, burrowing mammals and domestic cattle, have distinctive and synergistic impacts in shaping the structure and function of grassland ecosystems.