Herbivory differentially alters litter dynamics of two functionally contrasted grasses
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- Herbivores can have contrasted impacts on litter quality and litter decomposition, through an alteration of leaf chemistry and leaf senescence. Depending on the context, herbivores can induce defensive secondary compounds and thus slow down litter decomposition or accelerate decomposition by short-cutting nutrient resorption.
- Almost nothing is known for grasses, which contain smaller amounts of secondary compounds than forbs and trees. Because grasses span a gradient from exploitative species having a low C : N ratio and induced defences, to conservative species having a high C : N ratio and constitutive defences, we hypothesize that the litter dynamics of functionally contrasted grasses may be differentially altered by herbivores.
- In a mesocosm experiment, we assessed the litter decomposition rate of two subalpine grasses, the more exploitative Dactylis glomerata and the conservative Festuca paniculata, in the presence of two grasshopper species, Chorthippus scalaris and Euthystira brachyptera. We hypothesized that decomposition patterns depending on grass species and herbivory could be explained by the C : N ratio and the total phenolic content of fresh, senescent and decomposed leaves.
- Herbivory by grasshoppers induced the accumulation of phenolics in the fresh leaves of D. glomerata, but most of these compounds were lost during senescence. The decomposition rate of D. glomerata senescent leaves did not depend on herbivory, phenolics and N content or C : N ratio. In contrast, herbivory did not induce any phenolic accumulation in the grazed leaves of F. paniculata, but during senescence, phenolics disappeared in greater proportions in grazed leaves than in ungrazed leaves, probably due to the physical alteration of grazed leaves. Herbivory slowed down the decomposition rate of F. paniculata, which was correlated to the phenolic concentration of senescent leaves, but not to the C : N ratio or N content.
- Herbivory by grasshoppers differentially altered the litter decomposition rate of the two functionally contrasted grasses, having no effect on D. glomerata and slowing down F. paniculata. Thus, the combination of chemical and physical modifications of leaves by grazing and their interaction with grass traits may have either accelerating or decelerating effects on litter decomposition, with potentially complex outcomes at the ecosystem level.