Vertebrate herbivore-induced changes in plants and soils: linkages to ecosystem functioning in a semi-arid steppe


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  1. Large grazing herbivores have been reported to determine the structure and function of grassland ecosystems. However, the ecological linkages between structure and functioning components have yet been thoroughly explored.
  2. Here, we test the hypothesis of the impact of grazing on soil nematode community (e.g. structure and composition) and linkages to ecosystem functioning (e.g. soil N mineralization and ANPP) via changes in pathways of plant community, soil nutrients and soil environment using a field experiment maintained for 5 years with seven levels of grazing intensity in the Inner Mongolian grassland.
  3. A structural equation model (SEM) with nematode abundances as response variables showed that plant-feeding and fungal-feeding nematodes were driven by changes in the plant community, and bacterial-feeding nematodes were affected by soil abiotic nutrients and environment, while omnivorous + carnivorous nematodes were altered by soil environment and bacterial-feeding nematodes. This indicates that the top-down control by grazing leads to bottom-up control in the soil food web.
  4. We found that grazing affected the ecosystem functioning via different pathways. Grazing effects soil N mineralization by changing plant community, soil nutrients, soil environment and nematodes community structure, while it affects ANPP by altering soil N mineralization and soil environment.
  5. Our findings could provide a better understanding of the responses of plants and soils to grazing and the linkages between structure and functioning of above-ground and below-ground in the semi-arid steppe.