UAV reveals substantial but heterogeneous effects of herbivores on Arctic vegetation

Sci Rep. 2021 Sep 30;11(1):19468. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-98497-5.

ABSTRACT

Understanding how herbivores shape plant biomass and distribution is a core challenge in ecology. Yet, the lack of suitable remote sensing technology limits our knowledge of temporal and spatial impacts of mammal herbivores in the Earth system. The regular interannual density fluctuations of voles and lemmings are exceptional with their large reduction of plant biomass in Arctic landscapes during peak years (12-24%) as previously shown at large spatial scales using satellites. This provides evidence that herbivores are important drivers of observed global changes in vegetation productivity. Here, we use a novel approach with repeated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flights, to map vegetation impact by rodents, indicating that many important aspects of vegetation dynamics otherwise hidden by the coarse resolution of satellite images, including plant-herbivore interactions, can be revealed using UAVs. We quantify areas impacted by rodents at four complex Arctic landscapes with very high spatial resolution UAV imagery to get a new perspective on how herbivores shape Arctic ecosystems. The area impacted by voles and lemmings is indeed substantial, larger at higher altitude tundra environments, varies between habitats depending on local snow cover and plant community composition, and is heterogeneous even within habitats at submeter scales. Coupling this with spectral reflectance of vegetation (NDVI), we can show that the impact on central ecosystem properties like GPP and biomass is stronger than currently accounted for in Arctic ecosystems. As an emerging technology, UAVs will allow us to better disentangle important information on how herbivores maintain spatial heterogeneity, function and diversity in natural ecosystems.

PMID:34593844 | PMC:PMC8484448 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-021-98497-5

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