Herbivore effects on above- and belowground plant production and soil nitrogen availability in the Trans-Himalayan shrub-steppes
Large mammalian herbivores may have positive, neutral, or negative effects on annual net aboveground plant production (NAP) in different ecosystems, depending on their indirect effects on availability of key nutrients such as soil N. In comparison, less is known about the corresponding influence of grazers, and nutrient dynamics, over annual net belowground plant production (NBP). In natural multi-species plant communities, it remains uncertain how grazing influences relative allocation in the above- and belowground compartments in relation to its effects on plant nutrients. We evaluated grazer impacts on NAP, NBP, and relative investment in the above- and belowground compartments, alongside their indirect effects on soil N availability in the multiple-use Trans-Himalayan grazing ecosystem with native grazers and livestock. Data show that a prevailing grazing intensity of 51% increases NAP (+61%), but reduces NBP (−35%). Grazing also reduced C:N ratio in shoots (−16%) and litter (−50%), but not in roots, and these changes coincided with increased plant-available inorganic soil N (+23%). Areas used by livestock and native grazers showed qualitatively similar responses since NAP was promoted, and NBP was reduced, in both cases. The preferential investment in the aboveground fraction, at the expense of the belowground fraction, was correlated positively with grazing intensity and with improvement in litter quality. These results are consistent with hypothesized herbivore-mediated positive feedbacks between soil nutrients and relative investment in above- and belowground compartments. Since potentially overlapping mechanisms, such as N mineralization rate, plant N uptake, compositional turnover, and soil microbial activity, may contribute towards these feedbacks, further studies may be able to discern their respective contributions.