Rodent population dynamics affect seedling recruitment in alpine habitats

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Abstract

Questions:

How do rodents with cyclic population dynamics affect seedling recruitment in alpine habitats? Does disturbance from rodents have larger implications on seedling recruitment in some plant communities than in others?

Location:

Snowbeds and sheltered heaths in the low-alpine zone in areas of Bφrgefjell and Dovrefjell, Norway.

Methods:

We recorded seedling emergence, rodent activity and cover of mosses, lichens, litter and bare ground in 270 plots in snowbeds and sheltered heaths in a rodent population peak year and in the following low-density year.

Results:

Seedling recruitment was positively correlated with disturbances from lemmings and voles in both years. More seedlings emerged in the low-density year than in the year of the population peak. Snowbeds had higher seedling recruitment than the sheltered heaths, but both habitats were equally affected by disturbances from rodents.

Conclusions:

Rodent activity created gaps and increased seedling emergence in these alpine plant communities, particularly in the year after the rodent peak, both in snowbeds and sheltered heath habitats. Our study therefore suggests that regeneration patterns in alpine vegetation are tightly linked to the population cycles of lemmings and voles, which peak in density at 3- to 5-yr intervals.

Conclusions:

Using 2 yr of observational data of rodent disturbances and seedling recruitment in alpine vegetation in Norway, we demonstrate that small rodent population dynamics are an important driver of seedling recruitment patterns in two alpine plant communities; snowbeds and sheltered heaths.

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