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Revealing species-specific trophic links in soil food webs: molecular identification of scarab predators


Dr Michael Traugott, Fax: +43 512 507 2817; E-mail:


Soil food webs are particularly important in terrestrial systems, but studying them is difficult. Here we report on the first study to apply a molecular approach to identify species-specific trophic interactions in below-ground food webs. To identify the invertebrate predator guild of the garden chafer Phyllopertha horticola (Coleoptera, Scarabaeidae) whose root-feeding larvae can be highly abundant in grasslands, a specific DNA marker was developed. It allowed detection of P. horticola egg and white grub meals within the gut content of Poecilus versicolor (Coleoptera, Carabidae) larvae for up to 24 h post-feeding. Soil samples from an alpine grassland revealed a diverse below-ground macro-invertebrate community with earthworms, P. horticola larvae, and centipedes as well as beetle larvae as the most abundant detritivores, herbivores, and predators, respectively. Garden chafer DNA was detected in 18.6%, 4.1%, and 4.4% of field-collected Geophilidae (n = 124), beetle larvae (n = 159), and Lithobiidae (n = 49), respectively. We conclude that most of the investigated predators actively preyed on P. horticola, as secondary predation is unlikely to be detected in below-ground systems. Moreover, scavenging most likely contributes only to a small percentage of the revealed trophic links due to the low availability of carrion. Sampling date did not influence prey detection rates, indicating that both P. horticola eggs and larvae were preyed on. Only 2.7% of the below-ground predators tested positive for earthworms, an alternative, highly abundant prey, suggesting that P. horticola represents an important prey source for centipedes and predatory beetle larvae during summer within the soil food web.