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Ecology. 2007 May;88(5):1191-201.

Rainfall and soils modify plant community response to grazing in Serengeti National Park.

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Biological Research Laboratories, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York 13244, USA.


Terrestrial plant community responses to herbivory depend on resource availability, but the separate influences of different resources are difficult to study because they often correlate across natural environmental gradients. We studied the effects of excluding ungulate herbivores on plant species richness and composition, as well as available soil nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), across eight grassland sites in Serengeti National Park (SNP), Tanzania. These sites varied independently in rainfall and available soil N and P. Excluding herbivores decreased plant species richness at all sites and by an average of 5.4 species across all plots. Although plant species richness was a unimodal function of rainfall in both grazed and ungrazed plots, fences caused a greater decrease in plant species richness at sites of intermediate rainfall compared to sites of high or low rainfall. In terms of the relative or proportional decreases in plant species richness, excluding herbivores caused the strongest relative decreases at lower rainfall and where exclusion of herbivores increased available soil P. Herbivore exclusion increased among-plot heterogeneity in species composition but decreased coexistence of congeneric grasses. Compositional similarity between grazed and ungrazed treatments decreased with increasing rainfall due to greater forb richness in exclosures and greater sedge richness outside exclosures and was not related to effects of excluding herbivores on soil nutrients. Our results show that plant resources, especially water and P, appear to modulate the effects of herbivores on tropical grassland plant diversity and composition. We show that herbivore effects on soil P may be an important and previously unappreciated mechanism by which herbivores influence plant diversity, at least in tropical grasslands.

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