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Spatial pattern of grazing affects influence of herbivores on spatial heterogeneity of plants and soils

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With our enhanced understanding of the factors that determine biodiversity and assemblage structure has come increasing acknowledgment that the use of an appropriate disturbance regime to maintain spatial heterogeneity is an effective conservation technique. A herbivore’s behavior affects its disturbance regime (size and intensity); this, in turn, may modify the associated spatial heterogeneity of plants and soil properties. We examined whether the pattern of spatial disturbance created by the Siberian marmot (Marmota sibirica) affects the spatial heterogeneity of vegetation and soils at a colony scale on the Mongolian steppe. We expected that the difference in management between two types of area (protection against hunting marmots vs. hunting allowed) would result in different behavioral patterns; therefore, we estimated the patterns of spatial disturbance separately in protected and unprotected areas. We then surveyed plant communities and soil nutrients in these areas to assess their spatial heterogeneity. We found that disturbance of both vegetation and soil was more concentrated near marmot burrows in the unprotected area than in the protected area. In addition, the degrees of spatial heterogeneity of vegetation and soil NO3-N were greater in the unprotected area than in the protected area, where disturbance was more widely distributed. These results indicate that the spatial pattern of disturbance by herbivores affects the spatial heterogeneity of vegetation and soil properties through changes in the disturbance regime. Our findings also suggest that the intensity of disturbance is more important than its size in determining community structure in Mongolian grasslands.

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We thank the project members, and especially T. Okayasu of the University of Tokyo, for their kind help with the field survey. We also thank the staff at Hustai National Park for all their help during the study. This work was carried out with support from the Global Environmental Research Fund (G-071) of Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. The authors declare that this work was conducted in compliance with the laws of Mongolia.

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Correspondence to Yu Yoshihara.

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Communicated by Debra Peters.

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Yoshihara, Y., Ohkuro, T., Buuveibaatar, B. et al. Spatial pattern of grazing affects influence of herbivores on spatial heterogeneity of plants and soils. Oecologia 162, 427–434 (2010).

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  • Disturbance intensity
  • Disturbance size
  • Disturbance regime
  • Marmots
  • Mongolian grassland