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Long-term decline in white-tailed deer browse supply: can lichens and litterfall act as alternative food sources that preclude density-dependent feedbacks

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Abstract:

Selective browsing by cervids has persistent impacts on forest ecosystems. On Anticosti Island, Quebec, Canada, introduced white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus (Zimmermann, 1780)) have caused massive changes to the native boreal forest. Despite the apparent stability of the deer population over recent decades, we suspected that they were not at equilibrium with their browse supply and that further degradation of the habitat had occurred. A comparison of two browse surveys conducted 25 years apart showed a strong decline in browse availability. Although balsam fir (Abies balsamea (L.) P. Mill.) remained the most available browse species, it declined or disappeared from most stands (n = 13). Preferred deciduous species that were still available 25 years ago have almost disappeared. The continuous decline of the browse supply confirmed our hypothesis. This situation may be exacerbated by a subsidy from the winter litterfall, a significant and stable alternative food source. The abundance of litterfall from mature trees is independent of browsing over a long time period, which introduces a temporal uncoupling between the impact of deer browsing on balsam fir seedlings and the negative feedback from recruitment failure of mature balsam fir on the deer population. This means that the system is susceptible to being forced into an alternative regime.

Le broutement sélectif des cervidés produit des impacts persistants sur les écosystèmes forestiers. À l'île d'Anticosti, Québec, Canada, une population introduite de cerf de Virginie (Odocoileus virginianus (Zimmermann, 1780)) a modifié considérablement la communauté végétale de la forêt boréale indigène. Malgré la stabilité apparente de la population de cerfs au cours des dernières décennies, nous soupçonnons l'existence d'un déséquilibre entre le cerf et le brout disponible, ainsi qu'une détérioration persistante de l'habitat. La comparaison de deux inventaires réalisés à 25 ans d'intervalle montre un fort déclin de la disponibilité du brout. Le sapin baumier (Abies balsamea (L.) P. Mill.) demeure la source de nourriture dominante, bien qu'il soit en déclin ou ait disparu de la plupart des peuplements (n = 13). Les espèces décidues préférées du cerf et encore disponibles il y a 25 ans sont pratiquement disparues. La réduction continuelle du brout confirme notre hypothèse. En contrepartie, les lichens et ramilles qui tombent des sapins matures en hiver constituent une source de nourriture de rechange dont l'apport est indépendant de la pression de broutement sur une période prolongée. Cela introduit un découplage temporel entre les impacts du cerf sur les jeunes pousses de sapins et la rétroaction négative associée à l'absence de recrutement des sapinières sur les populations de cerf. Cette situation est susceptible d'entraîner le système vers un régime d'équilibre différent.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2005

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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