Although white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmermann) are generalist herbivores, they can have significant effects on species composition and abundance of forest trees, especially when deer densities are high and most plant species are heavily browsed but a few are selectively avoided as browse. We evaluated effects of selective deer browsing on tree species abundance in an old-growth mesic/wet-mesic forest in central Illinois by repeated sampling of permanent study plots in 2003 and 2008 and relating changes in stem density between the two samples to the intensity of deer browsing of individual species. The study site has high deer density (75 deer km2) during winter months, and initial observations indicated that paw paw (Asimina triloba (L.) Dunal) was strongly avoided as browse. Paw paw density increased in the seedling stratum between the two sample periods. However, nearly all other tree species declined in density; blue ash (Fraxinus quadrangulata Michx.) — a low-use browse species, had a small increase in seedling density. Tree species diversity decreased in the seedling stratum, but not in the sapling stratum, although sapling density declined for some species. The current trajectory of tree species growth and recruitment suggests that the development of a dense paw paw understory canopy will further decrease species diversity and reduce tree species recruitment. Based on the life history traits of paw paw, and high deer densities and selective browsing, this issue is of concern for current and future forest communities.
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Vol. 34 • No. 2