Weather fluctuations affect the impact of consumers on vegetation recovery following a catastrophic die-off.
Prolonged droughts exacerbated by climate change have been widely documented to interact with consumers to decimate vegetation in many ecosystems. Although climate change is increasing within-year variation in precipitation and temperature, how weather fluctuations affect the impact of consumers on vegetation processes remains poorly understood. In a salt marsh that has recently experienced drought-associated vegetation die-off, we investigated how top-down control of plant recovery by a prominent salt marsh grazer varies with weather. Our results showed that grazing-driven plant mortality varied strongly with weather in spring, with intense grazing occurring during cool, wet days immediately following rain. Intense grazing on cool, wet days across the generally dry spring season had a strong impact that eliminated plant seedlings that could otherwise have become tolerant of grazing in the following summer, thereby restricting vegetation recovery and contributing to the persistence of an unvegetated salt barren state. Thus, weather fluctuations can modulate the impact of consumers on vegetation recovery, a fundamental process underlying the fate of ecosystems after disturbances. A multi-timescale perspective on top-down control that combines the impact of short-term fluctuations in weather and that of long-term variation in mean climate can not only help understand ecosystem dynamics in an increasingly variable climate, but may also inform conservation strategies or recovery plans for ecosystems that are already lost to climate change.
He, Q; Silliman, BR; van de Koppel, J; Cui, B
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