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Keywords:

  • Atta;
  • ecosystem;
  • howler monkey;
  • land-bridge island;
  • Lago Guri;
  • leaf-cutter ants;
  • trophic cascade;
  • tropical dry forest;
  • vegetation dynamics;
  • Venezuela

Summary

  • 1
    We tested the ‘green world’ hypothesis of Hairston, Smith and Slobodkin by monitoring vegetation change on recently created predator-free land-bridge islands in a huge hydroelectric impoundment, Lago Guri, in the State of Bolivar, Venezuela.
  • 2
    Our results affirm the green world hypothesis and expose the operation of a strong top-down trophic cascade that negatively impacted nearly every plant species present, implying that community stability is maintained through the action of predators.
  • 3
    To test the hypothesis, we monitored vegetation on nine predator-free islands and compared demographic parameters to those observed at control sites supporting complete or nearly complete suites of predators.
  • 4
    Herbivore abundance was high on ‘small’ (≥ 0.5, < 2 ha) islands, moderate on ‘medium’ islands (> 3, < 15 ha) and low on the ‘large’ landmasses that served for reference.
  • 5
    Small sapling densities on small islands were only 37% of controls in 1997 (after 11 years of isolation), and when recensused in 2002, had fallen to 25% of controls. High mortality and, especially, low recruitment contributed to the decline in sapling cohorts.
  • 6
    Sapling decline occurred earlier on small islands, although recruitment failure had become equally pronounced on medium islands by the end of the monitoring period.
  • 7
    Several mechanisms could potentially account for suppressed sapling recruitment, but the weight of evidence points to herbivory on seedlings and small saplings by leaf-cutter ants (Atta spp. and Acromyrmex sp.). Exposure to prevailing trade winds (windward vs. leeward slopes of islands) had no detectable effect on the density or diversity of seedlings or saplings.