Community-level impacts of white-tailed deer on understorey plants in North American forests: a meta-analysis

AoB Plants. 2015 Oct 20;7:plv119. doi: 10.1093/aobpla/plv119.


The impacts of introduced or overabundant large herbivores are a concern for the conservation of forest plant communities and the sustainability of ecosystem function. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are considered ecologically overabundant in much of North America. Previous work suggests that impacts of deer overabundance are broadly negative and are consequently degrading forests at multiple ecological and taxonomic levels. However, no quantitative synthesis currently exists to verify the generality or magnitude of these impacts. Here, we report the results of a meta-analysis quantifying the effects of deer exclusion on the diversity, cover and abundance of woody, herbaceous and whole community components of forest understories in North America. In addition, we explore the relationships of environmental and experimental factors on the direction and magnitude of plant community outcomes using meta-regression. Using 119 calculated effect sizes sourced from 25 peer-reviewed articles, we constructed 10 community-specific data sets and found strongly positive diversity, cover and abundance responses of the woody community to deer exclusion, but no significant effects for the herbaceous or whole community components of forest understories. Local deer density and time since exclusion were significant moderators of both whole community and woody community richness. Local deer density also moderated the effects of deer exclusion on whole community cover. Plot area, in contrast, showed no relationship to any of the community response outcomes. We suggest that the use of inadequate diversity indices, non-native species replacement or legacy effects of chronic deer overabundance might explain why the herbaceous and whole community components of forest understories showed no diversity or cover responses to deer exclusion. We also suggest some strategies to increase opportunities for future quantitative syntheses of deer impacts on forests, including providing better access to existing and future data. Ultimately, we show that white-tailed deer have strongly negative impacts on forest understorey plant communities in North America, but these impacts are not ubiquitous for all components of the plant community.

Keywords: Deer overabundance; Odocoileus virginianus; forest ecosystem; meta-analysis; plant diversity; understorey plant community; white-tailed deer.