Herbivores can increase diversity in plant communities by consuming biomass and reducing light competition, thereby benefitting low growing species such as mosses and liverworts (bryophytes). Slugs and snails are important herbivores of forb species and might promote bryophyte diversity if they reduce forb abundance. They also feed on bryophyte capsules, which contain the spores, and it has recently been shown that these spores, can survive the digestive tracts of slugs and snails (endozoochory: internal transport of propagules). Slugs might therefore benefit bryophytes by dispersing their spores.
However, whether gastropod herbivory can reduce the dominance of vascular plants and thereby promote the germination and establishment of endozoochorously dispersed bryophyte spores has never been tested experimentally. Moreover, it is unclear whether these possible interacting effects can influence bryophyte species richness. In our study, “Endozoochory by slugs can increase bryophyte establishment and species richness” (Boch et al.) we tested for endozoochorous spore dispersal by slugs (Spanish slug; Arion vulgaris Moquin-Tandon; Arionidae), in combination with sowing of vascular plants, in a fully factorial common garden experiment. We built 30 slug enclosures of 100 cm × 20 cm and introduced either slugs previously fed with the sporophytes of 12 bryophyte taxa, control slugs previously fed with lettuce, or no slugs. We also sowed seeds of vascular plants into half of the enclosures.
Twenty-one days later bryophyte cover was on average 2.8 times higher (3.9% versus 1.4%) in the enclosures containing slugs previously fed with bryophytes than in the other treatments. After eight months slugs had substantially increased bryophyte species richness: there were 2.6 times more bryophyte species in the enclosures which had contained the slugs fed with bryophytes than in the other treatments. Sowing vascular plants into the cages did not affect the initial recruitment of bryophytes but after eight months high vascular plant cover did reduce bryophyte diversity. Our findings suggest that slugs are important dispersal vectors for bryophytes and that they can locally increase bryophyte populations and diversity through dispersing spores. They may also act to maintain bryophyte diversity by reducing the dominance of vascular plants.