A cross-system synthesis of consumer and nutrient resource control on producer biomass




Nutrient availability and herbivory control the biomass of primary producer communities to varying degrees across ecosystems. Ecological theory, individual experiments in many different systems, and system-specific quantitative reviews have suggested that (i) bottom–up control is pervasive but top–down control is more influential in aquatic habitats relative to terrestrial systems and (ii) bottom–up and top–down forces are interdependent, with statistical interactions that synergize or dampen relative influences on producer biomass. We used simple dynamic models to review ecological mechanisms that generate independent vs. interactive responses of community-level biomass. We calibrated these mechanistic predictions with the metrics of factorial meta-analysis and tested their prevalence across freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems with a comprehensive meta-analysis of 191 factorial manipulations of herbivores and nutrients. Our analysis showed that producer community biomass increased with fertilization across all systems, although increases were greatest in freshwater habitats. Herbivore removal generally increased producer biomass in both freshwater and marine systems, but effects were inconsistent on land. With the exception of marine temperate rocky reef systems that showed positive synergism of nutrient enrichment and herbivore removal, experimental studies showed limited support for statistical interactions between nutrient and herbivory treatments on producer biomass. Top–down control of herbivores, compensatory behaviour of multiple herbivore guilds, spatial and temporal heterogeneity of interactions, and herbivore-mediated nutrient recycling may lower the probability of consistent interactive effects on producer biomass. Continuing studies should expand the temporal and spatial scales of experiments, particularly in understudied terrestrial systems; broaden factorial designs to manipulate independently multiple producer resources (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, light), multiple herbivore taxa or guilds (e.g. vertebrates and invertebrates) and multiple trophic levels; and – in addition to measuring producer biomass – assess the responses of species diversity, community composition and nutrient status.