Multiple stable equilibria in grasslands mediated by herbivore population dynamics and foraging behavior

Eric W. Seabloom, Shane A. Richards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Plant community structure is often the result of interactions between succession, disturbance, and dispersal. While some disturbances may be highly stochastic (e.g., flooding or landslides), other types of disturbance are closely linked to the current successional state of the community (e.g., fire or herbivory). For example, when herbivores preferentially feed on early successional species they may generate conditions favorable for these species and thus create a positive feedback. Positive feedbacks may create multiple stable equilibria within plant communities. We demonstrate the presence of these positive feedbacks using experiments conducted in a restored California grassland. We found that pocket gophers (Thomomys bottae) preferentially forage in areas dominated by annual species, and gopher foraging activity increases the abundance of annual plants. We use a Markov chain model to identify how the foraging behavior, dispersal behavior, and population dynamics of territorial herbivores can structure a plant community across multiple spatial scales. The model is loosely based on the biology of pocket gophers, though it is general enough to be applicable to other territorial herbivores with foraging preferences. We find that a foraging preference for early successional species can generate multiple plant communities that persist within a herbivore's territory. If juveniles are selective when searching for territories during their dispersal phase, then herbivores can also generate persistent and distinct plant communities over larger spatial scales. In this case, fixed regions of the landscape may become occupied by herbivores for long periods (many herbivore generations) and be composed of a range of successional plant species, whereas the remaining landscape is abandoned by herbivores and becomes dominated by late successional species. This structuring of the landscape occurs even though we assume that the entire landscape is intrinsically identical.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2891-2904
Number of pages14
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2003


  • Alternate stable states
  • Disturbance
  • Foraging
  • Grasslands
  • Herbivore population dynamics
  • Herbivory
  • Multiple stable state
  • Pocket gophers
  • Spatial structure
  • Succession
  • Territoriality thomomys bottae


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