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ARS Home » Plains Area » Las Cruces, New Mexico » Range Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #262621

Title: Animal disturbances promote shrub maintenance in a desertified grassland

item ELDRIDGE, DAVID - University Of New South Wales
item WHITFORD, WALT - New Mexico State University
item DUVAL, BENJAMIN - Northern Arizona University

Submitted to: Journal of Ecology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 7/23/2009
Publication Date: 10/1/2009
Citation: Eldridge, D.J., Whitford, W.G., Duval, B.D. 2009. Animal disturbances promote shrub maintenance in a desertified grassland. Journal of Ecology. 97:1302-1310.

Interpretive Summary: Insects, such as ants, and mammals, such as kangaroo rats and badgers, are common to the deserts of North America. These animals often create disturbances in these deserts, and these disturbances are often actually quite important and influential in shaping these deserts. For example, burrows, nests, harvesting and storing seed are all activities that in a real sense shape even “engineer” desert plant communities and the desert landscape. This study examined the roles animals; including kangaroo rates, ants and badgers play in not only creating desert conditions, but also in maintaining desert conditions. Results from this study indicated that the disturbances created by these animals are important in maintaining stable, desertified conditions characteristic of shrublands of the desert southwest.

Technical Abstract: Soil disturbance by animals affects the availability of water, nutrients, sediment and seeds, which are critical for the maintenance of functional ecosystems. We examined long-lived faunal structures across six vegetation communities in the northern Chihuahuan desert of New Mexico, USA, testing the proposition that disturbances in undesertified grassland differ in magnitude and effect from those in desertified grassland. Vertebrate and invertebrate disturbances totalled 18.9 structures ha)1 across 18 sites. The most common were pits and mounds of American badgers (Taxidea taxus, 32%), nests of the ant Aphaenogaster cockerelli (18.8%) and mounds of kangaroo rats (Dipodomys spectabilis, 31%). Desertification was associated with a doubling of the density of structures, but no effects on cover or volume. The greatest density was in desertified mesquite and creosote bush shrublands, and the lowest density in undesertified grass swales. Badger and wood rat (Neotoma sp.) mounds were significant indicators of desertified communities. Desertification did not affect the density of kangaroo rat mounds (6.7 ha)1 in black grama grasslands and creosote bush shrublands). However, mounds in creosote bush shrubland were smaller and had more and larger shrubs than adjacent inter-mound hummocks. Desertification was associated with increases in the density of Aphaenogaster cockerelli and Trachymyrmex smithii nests, and declines in Pogonomyrmex rugosus nests. Substantial increases in soil nitrate and electrical conductivity on Myrmecocystus nests were associated with desertification. 5. Synthesis. Desertification shaped this desert environment in two main ways. First, while kangaroo rat mound density changed little with desertification, mounds in shrubland continued to enhance shrub persistence long after abandonment, reinforcing desertification processes. Second, marked changes in the density of nests of the key ant species altered the spatial distribution of soil nitrate and electrical conductivity, likely affecting soil fertility and the distribution of desert plants. Our results highlight the importance of animal activity in shaping desert plant communities, and in maintaining or reinforcing desertification processes.