Equivalence in the strength of deer herbivory on above and below ground communities

Herbivores exert a strong influence on the species composition and richness of plant communities, but the magnitude of their effect on belowground communities remains poorly understood. While an increasing number of studies acknowledge the importance of documenting belowground effects of herbivores, very few of these evaluate variation in the strength of the response from aboveground to belowground communities. Our study documents the long-term consequences of sustained deer herbivory for plant and arthropod communities adjacent to 15 exclosures that have been in place since 1996. We hypothesized that herbivory would alter the composition and diversity of communities, but the strength of the effects of herbivory would weaken from plants, to leaf-litter invertebrates, and to belowground microarthropod communities. First, we found that herbivory negatively impacted plant seedling and sapling abundance and performance, reduced the abundance of ants and the taxonomic richness of arthropods in the litter layer and reduced the richness of soil microarthropod communities. Second, in contrast to our hypothesis, the magnitude of effect size did not vary among trophic levels, indicating that effects of deer herbivory cascade from plants to the leaf-litter and soil arthropod communities with equal strength. While much recent research has focused on how specific traits of plants may mediate the effects of herbivory on associated species, our results suggest that indirect effects of herbivory might influence many components of belowground communities.