The loss of species diversity and plant community structure throughout the temperate deciduous forests of North America have often been attributed to overbrowsing by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginanus). Slow species recovery following removal from browsing, or reduction in deer density, has been termed a legacy effect of past deer herbivory. However, vegetation legacy effects have also coincided with changes to soil chemistry throughout the north-eastern USA. In this paper, we assess the viability of soil chemistry (i.e. pH, extractable nutrients and extractable metals) and other factors (topography, light, overstory basal area and location) as alternative explanations for a lack of vegetation recovery. We compared the relative effects of soil chemistry, site conditions and short-term (1-2 year) deer exclusion on single-species occupancy probabilities of 10 plant taxa common to oak-hickory forests in central Pennsylvania. We found detection for all modelled species was constant and high (p^ > 0.65), and occupancy probability of most taxa was best explained by at least one soil chemistry parameter. Specifically, ericaceous competing vegetation was more likely to occupy acidic (pH < 3.5), base cation-poor (K < 0.20 cmolc kg-1) sites, while deer-preferred plants were less likely to occur when soil manganese exceeded 0.1 cmolc kg-1. Short-term deer exclusion did not explain occupancy of any plant taxon, and site conditions were of nominal importance. This study demonstrates the importance of soil chemistry in shaping plant community composition in the north-central Appalachians, and suggests soil as an alternative, or additional, explanation for deer vegetation legacy effects. We suggest that the reliance on phyto-indicators of deer browsing effects may overestimate the effects of browsing if those species are also limited by unfavourable soil conditions. Future research should consider study designs that address the complexity of deer forest interactions, especially in areas with complex site-vegetation histories.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Plant Science