Spatial patterns of goose grubbing suggest elevated grubbing in dry habitats linked to early snowmelt
The western Palaearctic tundra is a breeding habitat for large populations of European geese. After their arrival in spring, pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) forage extensively on below-ground plant parts, using a feeding technique called grubbing that has substantial impact on the tundra vegetation. Previous studies have shown a high frequency of grubbing in lowland fen vegetation. In the present study, we examined the occurrence of grubbing in other habitat types on Spitsbergen, in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Goose grubbing was surveyed along 19 altitudinal transects, going from the valley bottom to altitudes dominated by scree. Grubbing was more frequent in the wet habitat type at low altitudes compared to the drier habitat type at higher altitudes. For the dry habitat type, a higher frequency of grubbing was found in study plots with a south-east facing exposure where snowmelt is expected to be early. This suggests that pink-footed geese primarily use dry vegetation types for grubbing when they are snow-free in early spring and the availability of snow-free patches of the preferred wet vegetation types in the lowlands is limited. Dry vegetation types have poorer recovery rates from disturbance than wet ones. Sites with early snowmelt and dry vegetation types may therefore be at greater risk of long-term habitat degradation. We conclude that the high growth rate of the Svalbard-breeding pink-footed goose population suggests that increasing impacts of grubbing can be expected and argue that a responsible monitoring of the effects on the tundra ecosystem is crucial.
Keywords: Anser brachyrhynchus; grubbing; habitat; pink-footed goose; Svalbard; tundra
(Published: 29 May 2013)
Citation: Polar Research 2013, 32, 19719, http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/polar.v32i0.19719
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Authors retain copyright of their work, with first publication rights granted to the Norwegian Polar Institute.