Small mammalian herbivores as mediators of plant community dynamics in the high-altitude arid rangelands of Trans-Himalaya (2006)

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The high-altitude rangelands of the Trans-Himalaya represent a grazing ecosystem which has supported an indigenous pastoral community for millennia alongside a diverse assemblage of wild herbivores including burrowing mammals (pikas and voles). Pastoralists consider the small mammals to cause rangeland degradation and as competitors for their livestock, and actively eradicate them at many places. We present data on the ways in which small herbivores like pikas and voles mediate plant community dynamics. Vegetation cover and plant species richness were compared on and off both active and abandoned small mammal colonies. Plant species richness was higher inside colonies (about 4?5 species/plot) than outside (about 3 species/plot) whereas vegetation cover was only marginally lower (52% compared to 60%). Soil disturbance due to small mammals is seen to be associated with higher plant diversity without causing dramatic decline in overall vegetation cover. Such disturbance-mediated dynamics and vegetation mosaics produce a rich array of testable hypotheses that can highlight how small mammals influence assembly processes, succession, and dominance hierarchies in plant communities in this arid ecosystem. So, eradicating small mammals may lead to declining levels of diversity in this ecosystem, and compromise ecosystem-functioning. Changes in traditional pastoral practices and overstocking are more likely to be responsible for degradation.We emphasize that eradicating small mammals can lead to loss of diversity in this ecosystem and it is not a solution for the degradation problems.
Year: 2006
Language: English
In: Biological Conservation 127 (2006) pp438-442