Animal consumers have important roles in ecosystems, determining plant species composition and structure, regulating rates of plant production and nutrients, and altering soil structure and chemistry. The purpose of this study is to determine whether or not the activities of small mammals regulate plant community structure, plant species diversity, and spatial vegetation patterns in Chihuahuan Desert shrublands and grasslands.
What role if any do indigenous small mammal consumers have in maintaining desertified landscapes in the Chihuahuan Desert? Additionally, how do the effects of small mammals interact with changing climate to affect vegetation patterns over time? This study will provide long-term experimental tests of the roles of consumers on ecosystem pattern and process across a latitudinal climate gradient. The following questions or hypotheses will be addressed.
1) Do small mammals influence patterns of plant species composition and diversity, vegetation structure, and spatial patterns of vegetation canopy cover and biomass in Chihuahuan Desert shrublands and grasslands? Are small mammals keystone species that determine plant species composition and physiognomy of Chihuahuan Desert communities? Do small mammals have a significant role in maintaining the existence of shrub islands and spatial heterogeneity of creosotebush shrub communities?
2) Do small mammals affect the taxonomic composition and spatial pattern of vegetation similarly or differently in grassland communities as compared to shrub communities? How do patterns compare between grassland and shrubland sites, and how do these relatively small scale patterns relate to overall landscape vegetation patterns?
3) Do small mammals interact with short-term (annual) and long-term (decades) climate change to affect temporal changes in vegetation spatial patterns and species composition?
4) Do small mammals interact with other herbivore and granivore consumers enough to affect the species composition and abundance’s of other consumers such as ants and grasshoppers?