High White-Tailed Deer Densities Benefit Graminoids and Contribute to Biotic Homogenization of Forest Ground-Layer Vegetation

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Biotic homogenization, with its emphasis on invasions, extinctions, and convergence in taxonomic similarity, provides an important framework for investigating changes in biodiversity across scales. Through their selective foraging, large populations of white-tailed deer are altering population sizes, driving extirpations, and facilitating invasions of plants throughout the eastern United States. I hypothesize that deer can drive biotic homogenization in forest understory communities by shifting species composition to one dominated by grasses, sedges, and ferns (all wind-pollinated plants). I report the effects of 16 years of deer exclusion in a hemlock-northern hardwood stand in N Wisconsin using a block design. Species composition showed greater convergence in control plots than exclosure plots, indicating deer can drive biotic homogenization at the stand level. Total percent cover is nearly 4 times greater in exclosure plots. Percent cover by woody plants, broadleaf herbs, and ferns is 150, 63, and 20 times greater in exclosure plots, respectively, while cover by sedges and grasses is 3.8 and 2.2 times greater in control plots. Cover by species with showy, insect-pollinated flowers is 79 times greater in exclosures. Graminoid-dominated control plots represent a novel state not observed fifty years ago, and could reflect the emergence of a grazing lawn. The increase in graminoids at this study area and throughout the region could under some global change scenarios be an early stage of conversion from forest to savanna or wood pasture.



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