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Open Access Research article

Interactions between herbivory and warming in aboveground biomass production of arctic vegetation

Christian Pedersen12* and Eric Post13

  • * Corresponding author: Christian Pedersen cpedersen@wwf.no

  • † Equal contributors

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Penn State University, 208 Mueller Lab, University Park, PA 16802 USA

2 World Wildlife Fund Norway, P.O. Box 6784 St. Olavs Plass, 0130 Oslo, Norway

3 Department of Arctic Environment, NERI-University of Aarhus, Frederiksborgvej 399, DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark

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Citation and License

BMC Ecology 2008, 8:17  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-8-17

Published: 22 October 2008

Abstract

Background

Many studies investigating the ecosystem effects of global climate change have focused on arctic ecosystems because the Arctic is expected to undergo the earliest and most pronounced changes in response to increasing global temperatures, and arctic ecosystems are considerably limited by low temperatures and permafrost. In these nutrient limited systems, a warmer climate is expected to increase plant biomass production, primarily through increases in shrubs over graminoids and forbs. But, the influence of vertebrate and invertebrate herbivores has been largely absent in studies investigating the effects of vegetation responses to climate change, despite the fact that herbivory can have a major influence on plant community composition, biomass and nutrient cycling. Here, we present results from a multi-annual field experiment investigating the effects of vertebrate herbivory on plant biomass response to simulated climate warming in arctic Greenland.

Results

The results after four years of treatments did not give any clear evidence of increased biomass of shrubs in response climate warming. Nor did our study indicate that vertebrate grazing mediated any increased domination of shrubs over other functional plant groups in response to warming. However, our results indicate an important role of insect outbreaks on aboveground biomass. Intense caterpillar foraging from a two-year outbreak of the moth Eurois occulta during two growing seasons may have concealed any treatment effects. However, there was some evidence suggesting that vertebrate herbivores constrain the biomass production of shrubs over graminoids and forbs.

Conclusion

Although inconclusive, our results were likely constrained by the overwhelming influence of an unexpected caterpillar outbreak on aboveground biomass. It is likely that the role of large vertebrate herbivores in vegetation response to warming will become more evident as this experiment proceeds and the plant community recovers from the caterpillar outbreak. Due to the greater influence of invertebrate herbivory in this study, it is advisable to consider both the effect of invertebrate and vertebrate herbivores in studies investigating climate change effects on plant communities.