Small mammal herbivory: Feedbacks that help maintain desertified ecosystems

G. A. Roth, W. G. Whitford, Y. Steinberger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


We tested the hypothesis that herbivores contribute to feedbacks maintaining arid ecosystems in a degraded state. We studied small mammal herbivory on a subshrub, broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), and perennial grasses at three sites: (1) ungrazed black grama (Bouteloua eriopoda) grassland; (2) grassland degraded by intense short-duration grazing; and (3) mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) coppice dunes. Snakeweed was browsed by herbivores primarily during dry winter months. The average percent of G. sarothrae standing crop biomass removed by browsing was 9.2 in ungrazed grassland, 7.4 in intensely grazed grassland, and 4.1 in the dunes. In ungrazed grassland, an average of 12% of grass cover was harvested by herbivores; in the intensely grazed plots - 80%. Herbivore exclusion plots showed that jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) were the primary browsers on snakeweed and rodents on grasses and G. sarothrae inflorescences. Rodent removal of G. sarothrae inflorescences allows wind dispersal of seeds in disturbed and desertified areas, thereby increasing abundance of this poisonous shrub. Grass-tiller cutting by rodents provides a strong feedback that may be responsible for keeping the grass cover low on the intensely grazed areas. Jackrabbit pruning has little effect on G. sarothrae abundance at any stage of desertification.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-65
Number of pages4
JournalJournal of Arid Environments
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank K. Havstad and the USDA JER staff for their logistical support, and A. Killgore and V. Mathis for their help in establishment of study plots and data collection. Funding for the project was provided by the International Arid Land Consortium (IALC), grant #02R-15.


  • Browsing
  • Desertification
  • Herbivory
  • Jackrabbit
  • Livestock grazing
  • Snakeweed


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