Herbivore control of annual grassland composition in current and future environments

Authors

  • Halton A. Peters,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 260 Panama Street, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
    2. Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
      * E-mail: hpeters@globalecology.stanford.edu
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  • Elsa E. Cleland,

    1. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 260 Panama Street, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
    2. Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
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  • Harold A. Mooney,

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
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  • Christopher B. Field

    1. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 260 Panama Street, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
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* E-mail: hpeters@globalecology.stanford.edu

Abstract

Selective consumption by herbivores influences the composition and structure of a range of plant communities. Anthropogenically driven global environmental changes, including increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), warming, increased precipitation, and increased N deposition, directly alter plant physiological properties, which may in turn modify herbivore consumption patterns. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that responses of annual grassland composition to global changes can be predicted exclusively from environmentally induced changes in the consumption patterns of a group of widespread herbivores, the terrestrial gastropods. This was done by: (1) assessing gastropod impacts on grassland composition under ambient conditions; (2) quantifying environmentally induced changes in gastropod feeding behaviour; (3) predicting how grassland composition would respond to global-change manipulations if influenced only by herbivore consumption preferences; and (4) comparing these predictions to observed responses of grassland community composition to simulated global changes. Gastropod herbivores consume nearly half of aboveground production in this system. Global changes induced species-specific changes in plant leaf characteristics, leading gastropods to alter the relative amounts of different plant types consumed. These changes in gastropod feeding preferences consistently explained global-change-induced responses of functional group abundance in an intact annual grassland exposed to simulated future environments. For four of the five global change scenarios, gastropod impacts explained > 50% of the quantitative changes, indicating that herbivore preferences can be a major driver of plant community responses to global changes.

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