Herbivory by deer is one of the leading biotic disturbances on forest understories (i.e., herbs, small shrubs, and small tree seedlings). A large body of research has reported declines in height, abundance, and reproductive capacity of forbs and woody plants coupled with increases in abundance of graminoids, ferns, and exotic species due to deer herbivory. Less clear is the extent to which (and the direction in which) deer alter herbaceous layer diversity, where much of the plant diversity in a forest occurs. We examined the effect of 15 y of deer exclusion on the understory of a suburban hardwood forest in Connecticut exposed to decades of intensive herbivory by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). We compared species richness (at subplot and plot scale), individual species and life form group abundance (% cover), and community composition between grazed and exclosure plots, as well as between mesic and wet soil blocks. Forb cover was more than twice as abundant in exclosure as in grazed plots, whereas sedge (Carex spp.) cover was 28 times more abundant, and exotic species cover generally higher in grazed than in exclosure plots. Native and exotic species richness were both higher in grazed than exclosure plots at the subplot scale, and native herbaceous richness was higher in grazed plots at both spatial scales. In contrast, native shrub richness increased with deer exclusion at the plot scale. Our results suggest that deer exclusion had contrasting effects on species richness, depending on plant life form, but that overall richness of both exotic and native plants declined with deer exclusion. In addition, site heterogeneity remained an important driver of vegetation dynamics even in the midst of high deer densities.

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