Population growth rate of a common understory herb decreases non-linearly across a gradient of deer herbivory
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KeywordDemography; Elasticity analysis; Extinction risk; Interspecific interactions; Matrix model; Tolerance
Overabundant white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are a significant management problem in North America that exert unprecedented herbivory pressure on native understory forest communities. Conserving understory plant populations requires quantifying a sustainable level of deer herbivory. To date, most population projection models consider only deer presence and absence. To estimate population growth rate along a gradient of herbivory, we focused on Trillium grandiflorum because it is a common understory species and a bellwether of deer effects and forest decline. We used matrix population models, and employed both prospective and retrospective analyses using a regression life table response experiment (LTRE). Deer affect size, stage and population dynamics of T. grandiflorum. Because deer target flowering and large non-flowering stages of T. grandiflorum, these individuals do not produce seed in the year they are browsed and are more likely to regress in stage and size in the following growing season relative to non-browsed plants. Importantly, sustained high browse levels result in populations dominated by small, non-flowering individuals. Our LTRE revealed a significant negative and decelerating relationship between herbivory and λ. This non-linearity occurs at the highest herbivory levels because highly browsed populations become dominated by stages that deer do not consume and are thus buffered from rapid decline. However, population extinction is expected when herbivory is greater than the pivotal value of ~15%. Our study demonstrates that levels of deer herbivory commonly experienced by forest understory perennials are sufficient to cause the loss of T. grandiflorum and likely other co-occurring palatable species.
Author Posting. © Elsevier B.V., 2009. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Elsevier B.V. for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Forest Ecology and Management 257 (2009): 1095-1103, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2008.11.018.