Changes in species abundance after seven years of elevated atmospheric CO 2 and warming in a Subarctic birch forest understorey, as modified by rodent and moth outbreaks

PeerJ. 2018 May 29;6:e4843. doi: 10.7717/peerj.4843. eCollection 2018.


A seven-year long, two-factorial experiment using elevated temperatures (5 °C) and CO2 (concentration doubled compared to ambient conditions) designed to test the effects of global climate change on plant community composition was set up in a Subarctic ecosystem in northernmost Sweden. Using point-frequency analyses in permanent plots, an increased abundance of the deciduous Vaccinium myrtillus, the evergreens V. vitis-idaea and Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaphroditum and the grass Avenella flexuosa was found in plots with elevated temperatures. We also observed a possibly transient community shift in the warmed plots, from the vegetation being dominated by the deciduous V. myrtillus to the evergreen V. vitis-idaea. This happened as a combined effect of V. myrtillus being heavily grazed during two events of herbivore attack-one vole outbreak (Clethrionomys rufocanus) followed by a more severe moth (Epirrita autumnata) outbreak that lasted for two growing seasons-producing a window of opportunity for V. vitis-idaea to utilize the extra light available as the abundance of V. myrtillus decreased, while at the same time benefitting from the increased growth in the warmed plots. Even though the effect of the herbivore attacks did not differ between treatments they may have obscured any additional treatment effects. This long-term study highlights that also the effects of stochastic herbivory events need to be accounted for when predicting future plant community changes.

Keywords: Clethrionomys rufocanus; Epirrita autumnata; Herbivory; Open-top chambers; Point-frequency analysis; Vaccinium myrtillus; Vaccinium vitis-idaea.

Grant support

This work was supported by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.