Disturbances are important natural factors affecting biological diversity, community composition, and ecosystem structure. The European ground squirrel is a semi-fossorial organism, and through disturbances caused by burrowing activities, it can play an important role as an ecosystem engineer of grasslands in central and south-eastern Europe. The aim of this study was to assess the response of grassland vegetation to disturbances by the European ground squirrel. We conducted a pairwise survey within a 1-ha study site with homogenous environmental conditions. We compared the vegetation characteristics of 2 × 2-m plots placed on 30 mounds, with paired control plots situated at a distance of 10 m from each mound. The results showed that plots disturbed by the European ground squirrel achieved a higher species richness and diversity and a distinct species composition compared to the undisturbed control plots. Vertical structure of vegetation was also significantly different with a higher proportion of the high and medium vegetation layers on the mounds. Shifts in the composition of plant life forms and life strategies were reflected by the reduction of graminoids and plant competitors, and support of forbs on the mounds. These findings suggest that the European ground squirrel helps to maintain heterogeneity in grassland ecosystems and creates patches of higher diversity and higher structural complexity in the relatively homogenous grassland vegetation of the Western Carpathians.
Acta Theriologica – Springer Journals
Published: Dec 13, 2017
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