Question: Does ecosystem engineering by small mammals have a significant influence on vegetation patterns in the arid steppe vegetation of southern Mongolia?
Location: Gobi Altay Mountains, southern Mongolia.
Methods: We assessed the impact of the small lagomorph Ochotona pallasi on plant community composition, nutrient levels and biomass production in montane desert steppes. Data were derived from vegetation relevés, harvests of above-ground standing crop and a bioassay, followed by analyses of soil and plant nutrient contents.
Results: Although the local climate is arid with <150 mm annual precipitation, clear evidence of allogenic ecosystem engineering was found. Plant communities on burrows differed from those on undisturbed steppe in that they contained more species of annuals and dwarf shrubs, and a greater abundance of the important fodder grass Agropyron cristatum. Standing crop and nutrient concentrations were higher for plants growing on burrow soil. In situ measurements and a pot experiment showed that this effect was related to increased levels of soil nutrients (P, K, N) rather than moisture availability.
Conclusions: The study confirms that O. pallasi positively influences soil nutrient levels on its burrows, which leads to increased grassland productivity even under dry conditions. Thus, O. pallasi does not deteriorate site conditions, and the need for presently applied pest control schemes aimed at this species should be reassessed.
Nomenclature: Scientific names of plants follow Grubov (2001).