Perturbation and abrupt shift in trophic control of biodiversity and productivity


  • Oswald J. Schmitz

    1. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, 370 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511, USA
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Ecology is founded on the view that ecosystem properties like biodiversity and productivity change smoothly with changing environmental conditions. However, emerging theory predicts that environmental change may cause abrupt shifts to alternate states. In many ecosystems, top predators play a pivotal role in controlling plant productivity and diversity. Yet it remains uncertain if altering this control shifts systems to alternate states. I report on a test of the hypothesis that loss of predator control of ecosystem function causes abrupt state changes in diversity and productivity. In this meadow ecosystem, predators enhance plant diversity by causing a highly productive, competitively dominant plant species to be suppressed by herbivores. Experimental predator removal caused rapid proliferation of the competitively dominant plant. Moreover, temporally staggered predator reintroductions failed to restore the ecosystem. This loss of resilience confirmed that the ecosystem crossed a critical threshold and entrained into an alternate state.