The optimal foraging theory, the nutrient balance hypothesis, and the plant association theories predict that foraging decisions and resulting tree damage by large mammalian browsers may be influenced by the species richness and species composition of forest stands. This may lead to either associational susceptibility (increased damage on a focal plant in a mixed stand) or associational resistance (reduced damage in a mixed stand).
Better understanding of the mechanisms and the relative importance of tree species richness and composition effects on foraging by mammalian browsers is needed to support sustainable management of forests and mammal populations. However, existing knowledge of forest diversity effects on foraging by large mammalian browsers comes largely from observational studies while experimental evidence is limited.
We analysed winter browsing by moose (Alces alces L.) in a long-term, large-scale experiment in Finland, which represents a tree species richness gradient from monocultures to 2-, 3- and 5-species mixtures composed of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.), Norway spruce (Picea abies L.), Siberian larch (Larix sibirica Ledeb.), silver birch (Betula pendula Roth.) and black alder (Alnus glutinosa L.).
The intensity of browsing per plot increased with tree species richness while browsing selectivity decreased with tree species being targeted more equally in species-rich mixtures. Tree species composition of a plot was also an important determinant of intensity of browsing. The greatest browsing occurred in plots containing preferred species (pine and birch) while intermediate preference species (larch and alder) experienced associational susceptibility when growing with pine and birch compared with their monocultures or mixtures without pine and birch. In contrast, we found no evidence of associational resistance; the presence of a least preferred species (spruce) in a mixture had no significant effect on moose browsing on other tree species.
We demonstrate that the presence of alternative forage species allows moose to spend longer opportunistically foraging in a plot, resulting in increased level of damage in species-rich stands and stands containing preferred tree species. Our results highlight the limitations of the optimal foraging theory in predicting browsing patterns and demonstrate the importance of associational effects within mixed stands.