Convergence of trophic interaction strengths in grassland food webs through metabolic scaling of herbivore biomass


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1. Food web theory hypothesizes that trophic interaction strengths of consumers should vary with consumer metabolic body mass (mass0·75) rather than simply with consumer body mass (mass1·0) owing to constraints on consumption imposed by metabolic demand for and metabolic capacity to process nutrients and energy. Accordingly, species with similar metabolic body masses should have similar trophic interaction strengths.

2. We experimentally tested this hypothesis by assembling food webs comprised of species of arthropod predators, small sap-feeding and large leaf-chewing insect herbivores and herbaceous plants in a New England, USA meadow grassland. The experiment comprised of a density-matching treatment where herbivore species were stocked into field mesocosms at equal densities to quantify baseline species identity and metabolic body mass effects. The experiment also comprised of a metabolic biomass-matching treatment where smaller sap-feeding herbivore (SH) species were stocked into mesocosms such that the product of their density and metabolic body mass (metabolic biomass) was equal to the large herbivore (LH) species. We compared the magnitude of the direct effects of herbivore species on plants in the different treatments. We also compared the magnitude of indirect effects between predators and plants mediated by herbivores in the different treatments.

3. Consistent with the hypothesis, we found that increasing metabolic biomass translated into a 9–14-fold increase in magnitude of herbivore direct effects and up to a fivefold increase in indirect effects on plants. Moreover, metabolic biomass matching caused interaction strengths among herbivore species to converge. This result came about through increases in the herbivore mean effects as well as decreases in variation in effects among treatment replicates as herbivore metabolic biomass increased.

4. We found, however, that herbivore feeding mode rather than herbivore metabolic biomass explained differences in the sign of indirect effects in the different food webs.

5. We conclude that increasing herbivore metabolic biomass not only strengthened the direct and indirect effects on plants but also made those effects more consistent across space. Nevertheless, metabolic biomass alone could not completely explain variation in the nature of indirect effects in the food web, suggesting that additional consideration of consumer traits like feeding mode will provide a more nuanced understanding of trophic interaction strengths in food webs.