Plant phenology of Luzula heathland plots in Spitsbergen (78°N) was manipulated by adding or removing snow, which altered the time for plots (2 m×2 m; n=10) to become snow-free. A 2-week difference in snowmelt, equivalent to approximately one-sixth of the growing season, was achieved between advanced (first to be snow-free) and delayed (last to be snow-free) treatments, which influenced plant biomass and plant quality. Nitrogen content of the forage species decreased with time after snowmelt, whereas C:N ratio increased. Manipulation of snowmelt led to a shift in ”phenological time”, without altering these plant quality parameters as such. Early in the growing season, Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) selected the advanced plots which had been snow-free for longest, presumably because of the greater biomass of both Luzula confusa and Salix polaris, major components of reindeer diet at that time of the year. Moreover, the proportion of live Luzula leaves was highest in advanced plots, relative to both unmanipulated control and delayed plots. In contrast, plant quality, measured as nitrogen content and C:N ratio of leaves, was lowest in the preferred plots. Phenolic content did not differ among treatments, and is therefore unlikely to play a role in reindeer selection for plots with early snowmelt. Unlike in temperate regions, where selection for plant quality seems to be of major importance, selection for plant quantity might be an outcome of generally low levels of plant biomass and high forage quality during the growing season in the high Arctic. Reindeer selection for high plant biomass is likely to lead to a more favourable nitrogen and energy return than selection for high plant quality.
Oecologia – Springer Journals
Published: Apr 12, 2000
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