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ARS Home » Plains Area » Las Cruces, New Mexico » Range Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #150379



Submitted to: American Midland Naturalist
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 7/1/2000
Publication Date: 7/1/2000
Citation: Kerley, G.I.H., Whitford, W.G. Impact of grazing and desertification in the Chihuahuan Desert: Plant communities, granivores and granivory. American Midland Naturalist. 2000. v. 144(1). p. 78-91.

Interpretive Summary: Over the past 150 years, Chihuahuan Desert grasslands have been degraded into less productive shrublands (desertification). This vegetation change is believed to be related to overgrazing by domestic livestock. This study examines the differences in plant communities in grazed and ungrazed sites. Also investigated are effects of vegetation change on granivorous (seed feeding) ants and rodent communities by comparing seed removal rates from bait stations in grazed an ungrazed grassland sites, as well as creosote and mesquite shrublands. Perennial grass cover was found to be higher in grazed areas. In grassland sites, ants removed more seeds than rodents; in creosotebush sites, rodents removed more seeds than ants; and, in mesquite sites, seed removal rates by ants and rodents were the same. Overall seed removal by ants was significantly lower in shrubland sites than in grassland sites. The number of different ant species removing seeds from bait stations was also significantly lower in shrubland sites than in grasslands. These data support the hypothesis that grazing leads to a shift in grassland to shrubland. This study also suggests that this shift to shrubland leads to a dominance of rodent granivory over ant granivory. Desertification then may be increasing the availability of preferred rodent habitat and may influence the lack of recovery of degraded desert grasslands.

Technical Abstract: Livestock effects on plant communities through overgrazing (desertification) should affect the structure and functioning of semiarid rangeland communities. We measured plant, granivorous ant and rodent communities and rates of seed removal by rodents and ants in grazed (by livestock) and ungrazed desert grasslands, as well as mesquite and creosotebush shrublands to test hypotheses on the effects of grazing and desertification on ecosystem structure and functioning. In desert grasslands, grazing reduced the cover of perennial grasses, particularly the dominant Bouteloua eriopoda, but the cover of forbs and shrubs did not differ between treatments. One species of perennial grass, Dasyochloa pulchellum, increased in grazed grasslands compared with grassland exclosures. Detrended correspondence analysis showed that grazing caused desert grasslands to shift in community structure towards the shrublands. There were more seed harvesting ant and rodent species in the creosotebush shrublands than in the grasslands and mesquite shrublands. Grazing had no effect on the diversity of ants or rodents within grasslands, and detrended correspondence analysis revealed no clear trends in granivorous ant community structure in the grazed and ungrazed grasslands or the mesquite and creosotebush shrublands. Ants removed more seeds than did rodents in the grassland sites, but rodents removed more seeds than did ants in the creosotebush sites; seed removal rates by rodents and ants were the same in the mesquite sites. Our data support the hypothesis that livestock grazing leads to a shift from grassland to shrubland in the Chihuahuan Desert with associated changes in the structure and functioning of faunal communities. Because grasslands support few species and low densities of rodents, seed harvesting ants are the most important granivores in these desert grasslands. On a larger scale, we therefore hypothesize that the observed dominance of rodents as seed harvesters in the Chihuahuan Desert is a function of the desertification of desert grasslands to shrublands by livestock and that associated feedback effects may complicate the regeneration of degraded communities.