Ungulates have become abundant in many temperate forests, shifting tree species composition by browsing and altering soil physical conditions by trampling. Whether these effects cascade down to other trophic levels and ecosystem processes is poorly understood. Here, we assess the paths through which ungulates have cascading effects on other trophic levels (regeneration, litter, invertebrates, rodents and organic matter decomposition). We compared ungulate effects by comparing 15 response variables related to different trophic levels between paired fenced and unfenced plots in twelve temperate forest sites across the Netherlands, and used pathway analysis model to identify the (in)direct pathways through which ungulates have influenced these variables. We found that plots with ungulates (that is, unfenced) compared to plots without (that is, fenced) had lower litter depth, sapling diversity, sapling density, rodent activity, macro-invertebrate biomass, decomposition rate of tea bags, pine and birch litter and higher soil compaction. These findings were used in a path analysis to establish potential causal relationships, which showed that ungulate presence: decreased sapling density, which indirectly decreased rodent activity; decreased litter depth, which indirectly reduced invertebrate diversity; increased soil compaction, which also decreased invertebrate diversity. Soil pH decreased invertebrate biomass, which also increased nitrogen mineralization. Yet, we did not find cascading effects of ungulates on decomposition rates. Importantly, an increase in ungulate abundance strengthens the cascading effects in this system. Our results suggest that ungulates can trigger cascading effects on lower trophic levels, yet decomposition and mineralization rates are resilient to ungulate browsing and trampling. Therefore, temperate forests conservation could benefit by limiting ungulate abundance.
- soil quality
- temperate forest