Question: Herbivores can play a fundamental role in regulating the composition and structure of terrestrial plant communities. Relatively inconspicuous but nevertheless ubiquitous gastropods and small mammals are usually considered to influence grassland communities through distinct modes. 1. Do terrestrial gastropods and small mammals, either alone or in combination, influence plant community composition of an intact annual grassland? 2. Do these herbivores influence the plant size structure of the dominant grass Avena?
Location: Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (37°24′ N, 122°13′ W, elevation 150 m) in northern California.
Methods: Animal exclosures were used to examine the single and combined influences of these herbivores on annual grassland production, community composition, and plant size structure during the growing season of an intact annual grassland.
Results: The removal and exclusion of the herbivores increased the prevalence of grasses relative to legumes and non-legume forbs; increased total production of above-ground plant biomass; and increased mean plant size and exacerbated size hierarchies in populations of Avena. The effect of both gastropods and small mammals, alone and in combination, was characterized by temporal oscillations in the relative dominance of grasses in plots with vs. without herbivores.
Conclusions: Both groups of herbivores are important controllers of California annual grassland that exert similar influences on production and composition. While other factors appear to determine the absolute number of individuals in this plant community, selective consumption of grasses by gastropods and small mammals partially offsets the competitive advantages associated with their early germination.