White-tailed deer site use affects vegetation structure, composition, and biodiversity in Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee
Herbivores have been known to exert powerful forces on vegetation structures in many plant communities. In particular, selective herbivores, those who choose specific plants to forage on, can greatly impact community structure by inhibiting the growth of species that contribute to the diversity within plant communities. Primarily, studies in the northeastern United States have shown the cascading effects white-tailed deer have in regions that have slow growing climatic conditions. The question remains of how white-tailed deer herbivory might affect vegetation structure and diversity in the southeastern United States, where the climate allows for faster growth of vegetation. Therefore, our research focused on delineating how white-tailed deer affect the plant community and diversity at Chestnut Mountain in Sparta, Tennessee. We measured vegetation abundance, visual obstruction, and diversity at six 50-meter plots throughout Chestnut Mountain and correlated daily numbers of deer photographed in the area by remote cameras. Deer herbivory did not inhibit vegetation growth of unpreferred grass or fern species, but preferred shrubs and vining species had decreased in relation to deer presence. Our study demonstrates that white-tailed deer might not have as powerful as an effect in the southeast as they do in the northeast except when in relation with shrub and vining species. Our results are preliminary but suggest that more extensive examination of deer herbivory and its affect on vegetation communities in warmer climates may be warranted.