Small mammal activity alters plant community composition and microbial activity in an old-field ecosystem

Herbivores modify their environment by consuming plant biomass and redistributing materials across the landscape. While small mammalian herbivores, such as rodents, are typically inconspicuous, their impacts on plant community structure and chemistry can be large. We used a small mammal exclosure experiment to explore whether rodents in a southeastern old ?eld directly altered the aboveground plant species composition and chemistry, and indirectly altered the belowground soil community composition and activity. In general, when rodents were excluded, C3 graminoids increased in cover and biomass, contributing toward a shift in plant species composition relative to plots where rodents were present. The plant community chemistry also shifted; plant ?ber concentration and carbon : nitrogen were higher, whereas plant nitrogen concentration was lower in exclosure plots relative to access plots. While microbial community enzyme activity increased when rodents were excluded, no signi?cant changes in the fungal : bacterial or potential nitrogen mineralization occurred between treatments. Our results show that rodents can rapidly in?uence aboveground plant community composition and chemistry, but their in?uence on belowground processes may require plant inputs to the soil to accumulate over longer periods of time.