Cryptic herbivores mediate the strength and form of ungulate impacts on a long-lived savanna tree.
Plant populations are regulated by a diverse array of herbivores that impose demographic filters throughout their life cycle. Few studies, however, simultaneously quantify the impacts of multiple herbivore guilds on the lifetime performance or population growth rate of plants. In African savannas, large ungulates (such as elephants) are widely regarded as important drivers of woody plant population dynamics, while the potential impacts of smaller, more cryptic herbivores (such as rodents) have largely been ignored. We combined a large-scale ungulate exclusion experiment with a five-year manipulation of rodent densities to quantify the impacts of three herbivore guilds (wild ungulates, domestic cattle, and rodents) on all life stages of a widespread savanna tree. We utilized demographic modeling to reveal the overall role of each guild in regulating tree population dynamics, and to elucidate the importance of different demographic hurdles in driving population growth under contrasting consumer communities. We found that wild ungulates dramatically reduced population growth, shifting the population trajectory from increase to decline, but that the mechanisms driving these effects were strongly mediated by rodents. The impact of wild ungulates on population growth was predominantly driven by their negative effect on tree reproduction when rodents were excluded, and on adult tree survival when rodents were present. By limiting seedling survival, rodents also reduced population growth; however, this effect was strongly dampened where wild ungulates were present. We suggest that these complex interactions between disparate consumer guilds can have important consequences for the population demography of long-lived species, and that the effects of a single consumer group are often likely to vary dramatically depending on the larger community in which interactions are embedded.