Small-mammal regulation of vegetation structure in a temperate savanna

Jake F. Weltzin, Steve Archer, Ron K. Heitschmidt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

164 Scopus citations


Explanations for documented increases in woody plant dominance in grasslands and savannas of North America include atmospheric CO2 enrichment and changes in climate, livestock grazing, and fire regimes. However, tree/shrub encroachment has also coincided with the eradication of a once widespread native herbivore, the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). We used field experiments and repeat aerial photography to demonstrate that prairie dogs, and the herbivores and granivores associated with their colonies, probably maintained grassland and savanna by preventing woody species such as Prosopis glandulosa (honey mesquite) from establishing or attaining dominance. Prosopis seed and pod disappearance was 3-99 times greater within prairie dog colonies. Ants were the primary agent of seed removal, whereas prairie dogs and associated vertebrates were the primary agents of pod removal. Survival of Prosopis Seedlings protected from vertebrate herbivory was similar on and off prairie dog colonies (≃60%), whereas survival of unprotected seedlings was 3 times greater off- than on-colony. On-colony, prairie dogs and associated herbivores girdled and destroyed all Prosopis saplings within 2 d of planting; survival of 1-yr-old seedlings was reduced by 50% after 3 mo of exposure to on-colony herbivores. Despite high levels of woody plant seed disappearance and seedling herbivory, on-colony 'seedling' reserves were substantial (950 plants/ha). Thus, prairie dogs and the fauna that occur on their colonies suppressed rather than eliminated Prosopis from the colony site. Removal of prairie dogs led to rapid development of Prosopis stands. Repeat aerial photography showed that Prosopis canopy cover on a colony eradicated in 1950 (27%) increased to a level (61%) comparable to that of off-colony Prosopis stands (65%) within 23 yr. These data illustrate how transitions from grassland to woodland vegetation can be mediated by a rodent herbivore. They further demonstrate how purposeful or inadvertent removal of native herbivores can have unforeseen effects on plant species composition and landscape physiognomy. Investigations of environmental constraints on vegetation distribution and abundance should take into account the historical role of herbivores in shaping the present system. Inconsistencies among historic accounts of woody plant distribution and abundance in semiarid western North America may be resolved by considering population dynamics of prairie dogs. Widespread eradication of this formerly abundant rodent has eliminated a significant constraint to woody plant establishment on many semiarid grassland and savanna landscapes and has thereby facilitated transitions to shrubland and woodland states. Past land management designed to remove one perceived impediment to livestock production appears to have contributed significantly to development of another management problem that is now a major detriment to sustainable livestock production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)751-763
Number of pages13
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997


  • Competition
  • Cynomys ludovicianus
  • Herbivory
  • Mesquite
  • Prairie dogs
  • Prosopis glandulosa
  • Seed disappearance
  • Seedling establishment
  • Succession
  • Tree-grass dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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