Lecomte, X., Fedriani, J.M., Caldeira, M.C., Clemente, A.S., Olmi, A. & Bugalho, M.N. (2016) Too many is too bad: long-term net negative effects of high density ungulate populations on a dominant Mediterranean shrub.PLOS One, 11(7), e0158139. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0158139 (IF2015 3,057; Q1 Multidisciplinary Sciences)
Plant–animal interactions imply costs and benefits with net balance depending on interacting species and ecological context. Ungulates, in particular, confer costs (e.g., plant leaf consumption, flower bud predation) and benefits (e.g., plant overcompensation, seed dispersal) to plants. Magnitude of costs and benefits may be altered by habitat management or ecological conditions favoring high density ungulate populations. Little is known however on whether plant costs or benefits predominate over the years, or the long-term outcomes of plant-animal interactions in habitat types sustaining high density ungulate populations. We investigated how high density ungulate populations alter plant costs and benefits by quantifying ungulate long-term effects on the shrub Cistus ladanifer (Cistaceae) individual size, seed weight and number, seed bank, and population density, through a 12-year ungulate exclusion experiment in a Mediterranean scrubland. We monitored plant size and flower buds in plants exposed or protected from ungulates and number of developed capsules and seeds consumed (potential seed dispersal) by ungulates during three reproductive seasons. We found that ungulates negatively affected shrub size and led to a dramatically decline of shrub reproductive structures and seed production, affecting the plant reproductive cycle. Number of buds was 27 times higher and number of developed seed 5 times higher in ungulate-excluded as compared to ungulate-exposed plots. After 9 years of ungulate exclusion, the C. ladanifer seed bank was 2.6 times higher in ungulate-excluded plots. The population density of C. ladanifer was 4 times higher in ungulate-excluded plots. Our long-term experiment showed that high density ungulate populations can alter plant-animal interactions by reducing plant benefits and increasing plant costs.