Snow-Mediated Ptarmigan Browsing and Shrub Expansion in Arctic Alaska

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Large, late-winter ptarmigan migrations heavily impact the shoot, plant, and patch architecture of shrubs that remain above the snow surface. Ptarmigan browsing on arctic shrubs was assessed in the vicinity of Toolik Lake, on the north side of the Brooks Range in Alaska. Data were collected in early May 2007, at maximum snow depth, after the bulk of the ptarmigan migration had passed through the area. In an area of tall shrubs, half of the buds on Salix alaxensis were browsed by ptarmigan. Three percent of the buds that were buried beneath the snow were browsed, 90% of the buds that were less than 30 cm above the maximum snow level were browsed, and 45% of the buds above that height were browsed. Ptarmigan browsing was found to be a major height limiter for tall shrubs, thereby controlling shrub architecture by brooming stems at the snow surface and inducing stump shoots. These results were qualitatively extrapolated by photographing shrub morphology over a region approximately 300 km wide across a series of north-flowing arctic rivers with headwaters in the Brooks Range. Ptarmigan "hedging" of shrub patches, and shrub growth under a warmer climate, are opposing forces mediated by snow distribution.