Large mammalian herbivores (LMH) strongly influence plant communities, and these effects can propagate indirectly throughout food webs. Most existing large-scale manipulations of LMH presence/absence consist of a single exclusion treatment, and few are replicated across environmental gradients. Thus, important questions remain about the functional roles of different LMH, and how these roles depend on abiotic context. In September 2008, we constructed a series of 1-ha herbivore-exclusion plots across a 20-km rainfall gradient in central Kenya. Dubbed "UHURU" (Ungulate Herbivory Under Rainfall Uncertainty), this experiment aims to illuminate the ecological effects of three size classes of LMH, and how rainfall regimes shape the direction and magnitude of these effects. UHURU consists of four treatments: total-exclusion (all ungulate herbivores), mesoherbivore-exclusion (LMH >120-cm tall), megaherbivore-exclusion (elephants and giraffes), and unfenced open plots. Each treatment is replicated three times at three locations ("sites") along the rainfall gradient: low (440 mm/year), intermediate (580 mm/year), and high (640 mm/year). There was limited variation across sites in soil attributes and LMH activity levels. Understory-plant cover was greater in plots without mesoherbivores, but did not respond strongly to the exclusion of megaherbivores, or to the additional exclusion of dik-dik and warthog. Eleven of the thirteen understory plant species that responded significantly to exclusion treatment were more common in exclusion plots than open ones. Significant interactions between site and treatment on plant communities, although uncommon, suggested that differences between treatments may be greater at sites with lower rainfall. Browsers reduced densities of several common overstory species, along with growth rates of the three dominant Acacia species. Small-mammal densities were 2-3 times greater in total-exclusion than in open plots at all sites. Although we expect patterns to become clearer with time, results from 2008-2012 show that the effects of excluding successively smaller-bodied subsets of the LMH community are generally non-additive for a given response variable, and inconsistent across response variables, indicating that the different LMH size classes are not functionally redundant. Several response variables showed significant treatment-by-site interactions, suggesting that the nature of plant-herbivore interactions can vary across restricted spatial scales.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)