Complexity of multitrophic interactions in a grassland ecosystem depends on plant species diversity


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1. We studied the theoretical prediction that a loss of plant species richness has a strong impact on community interactions among all trophic levels and tested whether decreased plant species diversity results in a less complex structure and reduced interactions in ecological networks.

2. Using plant species-specific biomass and arthropod abundance data from experimental grassland plots (Jena Experiment), we constructed multitrophic functional group interaction webs to compare communities based on 4 and 16 plant species. 427 insect and spider species were classified into 13 functional groups. These functional groups represent the nodes of ecological networks. Direct and indirect interactions among them were assessed using partial Mantel tests. Interaction web complexity was quantified using three measures of network structure: connectance, interaction diversity and interaction strength.

3. Compared with high plant diversity plots, interaction webs based on low plant diversity plots showed reduced complexity in terms of total connectance, interaction diversity and mean interaction strength. Plant diversity effects obviously cascade up the food web and modify interactions across all trophic levels. The strongest effects occurred in interactions between adjacent trophic levels (i.e. predominantly trophic interactions), while significant interactions among plant and carnivore functional groups, as well as horizontal interactions (i.e. interactions between functional groups of the same trophic level), showed rather inconsistent responses and were generally rarer.

4. Reduced interaction diversity has the potential to decrease and destabilize ecosystem processes. Therefore, we conclude that the loss of basal producer species leads to more simple structured, less and more loosely connected species assemblages, which in turn are very likely to decrease ecosystem functioning, community robustness and tolerance to disturbance. Our results suggest that the functioning of the entire ecological community is critically linked to the diversity of its component plants species.