The tall shrub tundra represents a biodiversity hot spot, with open tundra grasslands holding abundant nutrient rich food plants and tall shrubs providing food and shelter for a range of herbivores. The warming climate causes the shrubs to encroach the grasslands, and is part of the “greening of the Arctic”. How will the biodiversity of the tall shrub tundra change and to what extent will herbivores counteract the shrub expansion?  


Grassland and tall shrubs

In the low arctic tundra landscape of Varanger, the tall shrub tundra exists in riparian and other moist habitats as extensive grasslands with tall shrub patches of varying size. A range of forb and grass species are abundant in the grasslands and constitute nutrient rich food for a range of herbivores. The tall shrubs are essential as habitat to a range of birds as well as to other herbivores. The mosaic of grasslands and tall shrubs in the tall shrub tundra thus provide ample resources for herbivores in an otherwise barren landscape.  


Species richness of birds is dependent on the presence of tall life stages of tall shrubs (also termed thickets). (Read article).

However, such mosaics are not stable ecosystem states. Natural plant succession continuously causes the tall shrubs to overgrow the grassland. Yet, depending on the browsing pressure on the emerging shrubs, the succession may be decelerated or prevented from happening. Furthermore, small rodents, especially at their peak densities, cut down the small life stages of the tall shrubs and open up the grassland. Hence there is a transition between grasslands and shrublands that is continuously modified and where the mosaic of a given tall shrub tundra state is likely to be regulated by the herbivores. 


Small life stages of tall shrubs are held in a browse trap at densities above approximately 5 animals per km2. (Read article). 


Expected climate impact

Climate warming is causing tall shrubs to grow faster and encroach into their habitats more rapidly, in turn causing a lasting transition from grasslands to tall shrublands. Through the accompanied changes to the availability of food plants and shelter plants, this transition is expected to cascade through the food webs and manifest as an ecosystem state shift.

The climate warming induced transition from grasslands rich in forb and grass species to tall shrub dominance is likely to be mediated by the species inhabiting the tall shrub tundra. The abundance of small life stages of the tall shrub species indicates how fast a meadow might be overgrown. Yet the plant species constituting the grasslands may differ in their susceptibility to be overgrown. Moreover, the presence and abundance of small rodents and ungulates are likely to modify both the extent and the speed of the transition. 


Expected effects of climate change and ungulate management on tall shrub tundra, along with effects of small rodents. The direct impact of a warmer summer climate on the expansion of tall shrubs can be counteracted by ungulates when these are at densities higher than approx. 5 animals per km2 and also by small rodents when they are at their peak densities. The distribution of tall shrubs is in turn expected to impact the bird community as well as having potential climatic feedback through modified albedo. The expansion of tall shrubs is at the expense of grasslands (in the model stated as meadows), whereas the species composition of the grasslands is likely to modify the extent to which herbivores graze and hence the speed at which the shrubs encroach. 


Management relevance

  • Information about tall shrub encroachment in response to climate change is an early warning of a changing ecosystem state and important when deciding on management actions to counteract tall shrub encroachment through e.g. altered ungulate densities.
  • The role of herbivores in changing the palatability state of the grasslands is identified through exclosure experiments and more. This information can be used by management to alter herbivory in order to maintain a high palatability state. Whereas management actions are possible through altered ungulate herbivory, the palatability state has consequence to the whole herbivore guild.
  • Changes to the extent of tall shrubs is important for the herbivores dependent on the shrubs for food and habitat structures during winter, and hence important information to the management of moose, ptarmigan and hare populations.   


Monitoring methods

Plants: Yearly abundance estimates of functional groups and dominant species in the grasslands since 2005. Presence of all vascular plant species from 2005-2008 and again since 2018. Exclosures were established in 2019-2021 (in collaboration with the small rodent module) to separate the effect of herbivory by rodents, and ungulates from the effects of climate change. The tall shrub module is participating in the Nutrient Network, an international network that aims at understanding under what conditions do grazers or fertilization control plant biomass, diversity and composition.

Birds: Sound records since 2005 (in collaboration with the ptarmigan module).

Herbivore guild: Abundance of small rodents by fecal counts and snap-trapping from 2005 to 2020 and by camera trapping since 2021 (in collaboration with the small rodent module). Abundance of ungulates, hare and ptarmigan by fecal counts since 2005. Ungulate abundance by camera traps since 2021.

Tall shrub tundra represents biodiversity hot spots in an otherwise barren landscape. It forms a mosaic of grasslands rich in palatable plants and thickets providing food and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and larger animals. Photo: Kari Anne Bråthen

Tall shrubs provide habitat to a range of bird species. Photo: Francisco Murguzur

Ungulates such as reindeer and moose browse extensively on tall willows. ​Photo: Kari Anne Bråthen

Reindeer can only counteract tall shrub encroachment into meadows while the shrubs are still in small life stages. Photo: Geir Vie

Measuring plant abundance in an all-herbivore exclosure and a reindeer exclosure (in the background). Herbivore exclosures help understanding the role of herbivores in the transition from grassland to shrubland in the tall shrub tundra. Forbs and willow leaves are the most nutrient rich plants and are preferred by herbivores. Thus, they increase in abundance if herbivores are not present. In contrast, silica-rich grasses are not favored food plants and increase in abundance where herbivores graze down the more favored plant species. Foto: Hanna Böhner

Plant species composition is monitored yearly. Photo: Kari Anne Bråthen

Module members

Module leader
Professor,UiT - Arctic university of Norway
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Research assistant,UiT - Arctic university of Norway
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Professor, UiT - Arctic university of Norway
Researcher, UiT - Arctic university of Norway
Researcher, UiT - Arctic university of Norway
Associate Professor, UiT - Arctic university of Norway
Advisor COAT, UiT - Arctic university of Norway
Senior researcher, NINA - Norwegian Institute for Nature Research


Selected papers

Petit Bon M, Böhner H, Kaino S, Moe T & Bråthen KA.
One leaf for all: Chemical traits of single leaves measured at the leaf surface using near‐infrared reflectance spectroscopy
2020. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 11, Issue 9.
Bråthen KA, Ravolainen VT, Stien A, Tveraa T, Ims RA.
Rangifer management controls a climate-sensitive tundra state transition
2017. Ecological applications, volume 27, issue 8
Bråthen KA, Jahiri X, Justado JGH, Soininen EM, Jensen, JB.
Fungal endophyte diversity in tundra grasses increases by grazing.
2015. Fungal Ecology, volume 17
Ravolainen VT, Bråthen KA, Ims RA, Yoccoz NG, Henden J-A, Killengreen ST.
Rapid, landscape scale responses in riparian tundra vegetation to exclusion of small and large mammalian herbivores.
2011. Basic and Applied Ecology, volume 12, issue 8
Ravolainen VT, Bråthen KA, Yoccoz NG, Nguyen JK, Ims RA.
Complementary impacts of small rodents and semi-domesticated ungulates limit tall shrub expansion in the tundra.
2013. Journal of Applied Ecology, volume 51, issue 1.
Soininen EM, Bråthen KA, Justado JGH, Reidinger S, Hartley SE.
More than herbivory: levels of silica-based defences in grasses vary with plant species, genotype and location.
2013. Oikos, volume 122, issue 1