Mammalian herbivory in post-fire chaparral impacts herbaceous composition but not N and C cycling.
Aims: Classical theory predicts that herbivores impact herb assemblages and soil nitrogen (N) cycling through selective plant consumption and the deposition of N-rich waste, with effects dependent upon ecosystem N availability. Herbivores are predicted to accelerate N cycling when N availability is high and decelerate cycling when availability is low. However, experimental tests of these theories in natural systems are limited and have yielded contradictory results. California's widespread chaparral shrublands provide a tractable system in which to test these theories. They are prone to periodic crown fire, which temporarily removes living shrub cover, deposits mineral N on soils and allows diverse herbaceous assemblages to dominate the landscape for 3-5 years. Chaparral is also increasingly vulnerable to herbaceous invasion; mammalian herbivory may limit the establishment of non-native herbs in the shrub understory. Methods: We implemented a 2-year herbivore-exclosure experiment (Hopland, CA) to assess the impact of mammalian herbivory during early post-fire chaparral succession, both on herbaceous plant assemblages and soil N and C cycling. We predicted that, in high-N post-fire conditions, mammalian herbivory would not demonstrate a strong preference for N-fixing herbs, would accelerate N cycling and would reduce the abundance of non-native herbs. Important Findings: Excluding mammalian herbivores increased herb standing biomass by 54%, but changed neither the relative abundance of N-fixing vs. non-N-fixing herbs nor any measure of N or C cycling. Herbivore impacts on nutrient cycling may not be significant over the 2-year time scale of the experiment and physical effects of herbivore activity could have counteracted the influence of plant litter and animal dung/urine inputs. Mammalian herbivores concentrated their feeding on typical non-native herbs, slightly decreasing their relative abundance; however, mammalian herbivory was not sufficient to stem the invasion of chaparral by invasive herbs or alter C and N cycling over the first 2 years after fire.