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Oecologia. 2008 Jul;156(4):825-34. doi: 10.1007/s00442-008-1038-6. Epub 2008 Apr 29.

Spatial heterogeneity and plant species richness at different spatial scales under rabbit grazing.

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Division of Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 7PY, UK.


Herbivores influence spatial heterogeneity in soil resources and vegetation in ecosystems. Despite increasing recognition that spatial heterogeneity can drive species richness at different spatial scales, few studies have quantified the effect of grazing on spatial heterogeneity and species richness simultaneously. Here we document both these variables in a rabbit-grazed grassland. We measured mean values and spatial patterns of grazing intensity, rabbit droppings, plant height, plant biomass, soil water content, ammonia and nitrate in sites grazed by rabbits and in matched, ungrazed exclosures in a grassland in southern England. Plant species richness was recorded at spatial scales ranging between 0.0001 and 150 m(2). Grazing reduced plant height and plant biomass but increased levels of ammonia and nitrate in the soil. Spatial statistics revealed that rabbit-grazed sites consisted of a mixture of heavily grazed patches with low vegetation and nutrient-rich soils (lawns) surrounded by patches of high vegetation with nutrient-poor soils (tussocks). The mean patch size (range) in the grazed controls was 2.1 +/- 0.3 m for vegetation height, 3.8 +/- 1.8 m for soil water content and 2.8 +/- 0.9 m for ammonia. This is in line with the patch sizes of grazing (2.4 +/- 0.5 m) and dropping deposition (3.7 +/- 0.6 m) by rabbits. In contrast, patchiness in the ungrazed exclosures had a larger patch size and was not present for all variables. Rabbit grazing increased plant species richness at all spatial scales. Species richness was negatively correlated with plant height, but positively correlated to the coefficient of variation of plant height at all plot sizes. Species richness in large plots (<25 m(2)) was also correlated to patch size. This study indicates that the abundance of strong competitors and the nutrient availability in the soil, as well as the heterogeneity and spatial pattern of these factors may influence species richness, but the importance of these factors can differ across spatial scales.

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