Consumer roles of small mammals within fragmented native tallgrass prairie

TitleConsumer roles of small mammals within fragmented native tallgrass prairie
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsHope, AG, Gragg, SF, Nippert, JB, Combe, FJ
Accession NumberKNZ002047

Grassland ecosystems globally are being negatively impacted by changes in climate, disturbance regimes, nutrient flux, and consumer guilds. Changes in the trophic ecology of consumers can substantially influence local resources, contributing to shifting diversity, community turnover, and other processes of ecosystem change. Small mammals are diverse and abundant within grasslands and yet the impact of changing ecosystems on small mammals and the role of these mammals as consumers are still both under‐studied. We assessed small mammal resource use within grassland and woodland vegetation types that have resulted from landscape‐scale experimental disturbance through fire treatments within the tallgrass prairie ecoregion of the North American Great Plains. We predicted that resource use would vary significantly among grassland vs. woodland communities, in turn reducing the role of small mammals in contributing to future maintenance of native prairies. We sampled five dominant species of rodents across three years and multiple habitats. Using stable isotope analysis, we investigated isotopic niche area and overlap to infer variation in diet, both within and among species. Resource use shifted in bivariate isotopic space seasonally but not across years when combining all species and habitats. Inferred spring diet (based on fur samples) was highly diverse and overlapping. Summer isotopic values (based on liver tissue) in woody habitat treatments were narrower and overlapped less than within grassland habitats. Consumers generally shifted from C4 herbivory to C3 herbivory, or greater omnivory, when analyzing grassland, shrubland, and woodland habitats respectively. Within the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, small mammal populations in herbaceous‐dominated habitats use a broader variety of resources than small mammals in proximate woody‐dominated habitats. As native grasslands experience woody encroachment, small mammal assemblages experience turnover of dominant species and associated changes in diet. Ecosystem changes such as cessation of frequent fire resulting in more woody habitats may include reduced roles by native small mammals as consumers/dispersers/propagators of native grassland plants.