Reindeer induced changes in vegetation composition and plant traits on a tundra-forest border

University essay from Lunds universitet/Institutionen för naturgeografi och ekosystemvetenskap

Abstract: Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are the most common large herbivores in the arctic. With a habitat spreading over the entire circumpolar region, they can have a substantial effect on plant species composition and ecosystem processes and functions. They affect plant species composition by trampling, removal of foliage and by fertilization through dung and urine. These alterations in species composition affect the plant traits in the plant community. Further, plants by themselves can change their traits as a defence mechanism to grazing or as a reaction to alterations in nutrient input. These alterations in plant traits can change the carbon and nutrient cycle and energy balance in an ecosystem. In this thesis, I analyse how reindeer grazing affects the plant species composition of the ground vegetation, and subsequently, the overall community traits connected to the plant composition shift. Further, I test whether grazing regime affects the traits of five plant key-species – Empetrum hermaphroditum, Phyllodoce caerulea, Vaccinium myrtillus, Vaccinium vitis-idaea, and Deschampsia flexuosa – of the ground vegetation. These questions were tested in northern Fennoscandia, on an area where a reindeer-fence separates only winter-grazed areas from also summer grazed regions. After 50 years of summer grazing, the growth of B. pubescens and B. nana was hampered to a level where almost no tall trees were found on the summer grazed side of the fence. The graminoid and moss cover was significantly higher under summer grazing. Summer grazing significantly lowered the leaf P content, whereas the leaf N content was unaffected which led to a lower N:P ratio. None of the other investigated traits – leaf area, specific leaf area, leaf:stem ratio, stem specific density, root specific density and fine:coarse root ratio – were affected by grazing regime, however, the root specific density declined with increased in B. pubescens cover and is thus indirectly affected by grazing. The obtained results show that some plant traits could be directly or indirectly affected by grazing, and so potentially alter the energy balance, carbon and nutrient cycling of an ecosystem. Yet, further studies are needed to define how and to which extent the alterations in plant traits affect the carbon and nutrient cycling of an ecosystem.

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