Forest floor plant diversity drives the use of mature spruce forests by European bison

Ecol Evol. 2020 Dec 16;11(1):636-647. doi: 10.1002/ece3.7094. eCollection 2021 Jan.


The distribution of large ungulates in space is in large extent driven by the availability of forage, which in temperate forests depends on light availability, and associated plant diversity and cover. We hypothesized that the increased number of GPS fixes of European bison (Bison bonasus L.) in usually avoided spruce forests was an effect of higher plant species richness and cover of the forest floor, which developed owing to increased light availability enhanced by spruce mortality. We carried out 80 forest floor plant surveys combined with tree measurement on plots chosen according to the number of GPS locations of GPS-collared European bison. The mean plant species richness per plot was higher on intensively visited plots (IV) than rarely visited (RV) plots (30 ± 5.75 (SD) versus. 26 ± 6.19 (SD)). The frequency of 34 plant species was higher on IV plots, and they were mainly herbaceous species (32 species), while a significant part of 13 species with higher frequency on RV plots was woody plants (5 species). The species richness of forbs was higher on IV plots, while other functional groups of plants did not differ. Tree stem density on the IV plots was lower than on the RV plots (17.94 ± 6.73 (SD) versus 22.9 ± 7.67 (SD)), and the mean value of Ellenberg's ecological indicator for light availability for all forest floor plant species was higher on IV plots. European bison visiting mature spruce forests was driven by higher forest floor plant cover and species richness, and high share and species richness of forbs. The two latter features may be translated into higher quality and diversity of forage. In spite of morphological characteristics suggesting that European bison is a species of mixed (mosaic) habitats, it seems to be well adapted to thrive in diverse forests.

Keywords: Białowieża Forest; forb diversity; large herbivores; space use; temperate forest; ungulates.