Climate change intensification of herbivore impacts on tree recruitment

Jedediah Brodie, Eric Post, Fred Watson, Joel Berger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Altered species interactions are difficult to predict and yet may drive the response of ecological communities to climate change. We show that declining snowpack strengthens the impacts of a generalist herbivore, elk (Cervus elaphus), on a common tree species. Thick snowpack substantially reduces elk visitation to sites; aspen (Populus tremuloides) shoots in these areas experience lower browsing rates, higher survival and enhanced recruitment. Aspen inside herbivore exclosures have greatly increased recruitment, particularly at sites with thick snowpack. We suggest that long-term decreases in snowpack could help explain a widespread decline of aspen through previously unconsidered relationships. More generally, reduced snowpack across the Rocky Mountains, combined with rising elk populations, may remove the conditions needed for recruitment of this ecologically important tree species. These results highlight that herbivore behavioural responses to altered abiotic conditions are critical determinants of plant persistence. Predictions of climate change impacts must not overlook the crucial importance of species interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1366-1370
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1732
StatePublished - Apr 7 2012


  • Elk
  • Plant demography
  • Snowpack
  • Species interactions
  • Yellowstone


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