Cascading effects of predator–detritivore interactions depend on environmental context in a Tibetan alpine meadow

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Summary

  1. Studies of grazing food webs show that species traits can interact with environmental factors to determine the strength of trophic cascades, but analogous context dependencies in detrital food webs remain poorly understood.
  2. In predator–detritivore–plant interaction chains, predators are expected to indirectly suppress plant biomass by reducing the density of plant-facilitating detritivores. However, this outcome can be reversed where above-ground predators drive burrowing detritivores to lower soil levels, strengthening their plant-facilitating effects. Here, we show that these trait-mediated indirect interactions further depend on environmental context in a Tibetan alpine meadow.
  3. In our study system, undulating topography generates higher (dry soil) patches interspersed with lower (wet soil) patches. Because the ability of detritivores to form deep burrows is likely to be limited by oxygen availability in low patches (wet soil), we hypothesized that (i) burrowing detritivores would undergo a vertical habitat shift, allowing them to more effectively avoid predation, in high – but not low – patches, and (ii) this shift would transmit positive effects of predators to plants in high patches by improving conditions in the lower soil layer.
  4. We tested these hypotheses using complementary field and glasshouse experiments examining whether the cascading effects of above-ground predatory beetles (presence/absence) on the density and behaviour of tunnel-forming detritivorous beetles, soil properties, and plant growth varied with patch type (low/high).
  5. Results revealed that predatory beetles did not reduce the density of detritivores in either patch type but had context-dependent trait-mediated effects, increasing the tunnelling depth of detritivores, improving soil conditions and ultimately increasing plant biomass in the high but not low patches.
  6. This study adds to an emerging predictive framework linking predators to plants in detritus food webs, demonstrating that these indirect interactions depend not just on the relative habitat domains of predators and prey, but also on environmental conditions that can predictably constrain the behavioural response of detritivores to predation risk.

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