Arctic herbivore diversity is mostly determined by plants and predators

22.6.2016 15:10

Diversity patterns of Arctic herbivores are only partly determined by temperature; interactions with plants and predators are more important. The diversity of herbivores varies across the Arctic, and until now, no one knew whether this was shaped by physical environmental factors, like temperature, or biotic factors, such as plant productivity.

Understanding the forces that shape biodiversity is essential for improving our ability to predict the responses of ecosystems to rapid, ongoing environmental change. In the Arctic, herbivores often play a key role in the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. Vertebrate herbivores are particularly important as they affect the structure and dynamics of plant communities and provide food for higher trophic-level predators. The results of this study showed that herbivore diversity in the Arctic is higher in areas with greater plant productivity and with higher diversity of predators.

– We cannot only consider temperature and precipitation when projecting how Fennoscandian tundra ecosystems might change in the coming decades. We need to account for the fact that, for example, large reindeer herds can be beneficial by potentially limiting encroachment of shrubs and mountain birch forest into the fjells. Forested fjells instead can facilitate rapid climate warming, says Research Professor Bruce Forbes from the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland, who is the member of the research initiative.

The study is the result of a new collaborative research initiative, the Herbivory Network, involving researchers from 10 different countries. The research team collected information on the distribution of all 73 species of vertebrate herbivores that occur in the Arctic, including migratory geese, reindeer and caribou, lemmings and free-ranging domestic sheep.

More information:

Herbivory Network:

The study “Biotic interactions mediate patterns of herbivore diversity in the Arctic” is published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography

Bruce Forbes
Research Professor, Docent
Arctic Centre, University of Lapland
+358 40 847 9202, bruce.forbes (at)