Effects of abundant white-tailed deer on vegetation, animals, mycorrhizal fungi, and soils

Angela L. Shelton, Jeremiah A. Henning, Peggy Schultz, Keith Clay

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69 Scopus citations


The last several decades have seen dramatic increases in ungulate populations worldwide, and white-tailed deer in the eastern United States currently exist at unprecedented densities in many areas. Numerous studies have demonstrated the effects of high densities of white-tailed deer on forest communities. However, few studies have simultaneously examined the effects of deer on multiple components of forest communities across trophic levels. Here, we simultaneously examine effects of excluding white-tailed deer on responses of woody and herbaceous vegetation, terrestrial and subterranean animals, mycorrhizal fungi, and soil characteristics. This study was conducted in a forest preserve with high deer densities in the central hardwoods region of the Midwestern US, using a series of replicated deer exclosures (15. ×. 15. m) and adjacent unfenced controls that ranged in age from two to seven years. Despite significant tree recruitment inside exclosures, we recorded no native tree seedling recruitment in control plots. In addition, the growth rate of existing tree seedlings was significantly greater in exclosures than in controls, and the growth rate of invasive shrubs was approximately 30 times higher inside exclosures. Exclosures also had increased height, species diversity, and abundance of spring plants, and increased vegetation density in summer. We also found differences in terrestrial animals with higher densities of white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) and dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis) inside deer exclosures. However, there were no differences in salamanders or earthworms. Soil inside exclosures was significantly less compacted than in control plots despite the short period of deer exclusion, but there were no significant differences in soil nutrients or arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. These results indicate that there are strong effects of high deer densities on all classes of understory vegetation and indirect effects on animals and soils. However, most belowground effects were nonsignificant, suggesting that responses of belowground communities to deer exclusion are weaker or slower to develop than aboveground effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)39-49
Number of pages11
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - May 15 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thanks to Curtis Conrad, Katherine Zaiger, Mark Sheehan, Gillian Harris, Nathan Wells, Julia Ferguson, Elizabeth Ridens, Daniel Burnham, Alicia Cooley, and Hannah Milano for help with field data collection. Salamander and mouse trapping followed all Animal Care and Use guidelines for animal research through Indiana University and was approved by Indiana DNR Scientific Purposes License 13-0024 to A.L. Shelton. Funding for this project was provided by the Indiana University Center for Research in Environmental Science. The Indiana University Research and Teaching Preserve provided access to research sites and staff to construct and maintain the deer exclosures.


  • Central hardwood forests
  • Community effects
  • Deer browsing
  • Odocoileus virginianus


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