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Keywords:

  • Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning;
  • community genetics;
  • diffuse selection;
  • genetic diversity and herbivory;
  • Oenothera biennis;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • plant–insect interactions

Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 553–563

Abstract

Both plant diversity and vertebrate herbivores can impact plant fitness and ecosystem functioning, however their interactions have not been explicitly tested. We manipulated plant genotypic diversity of the native plant Oenothera biennis and monitored its survivorship and lifetime fitness with and without one of its major vertebrate consumers, white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus. Intense but unmanipulated herbivory by meadow voles Microtus pennsylvanicus killed over 70% of nearly 4000 experimental plants. However, plants grown in genotypically diverse patches suffered fewer vole attacks and had higher survival and reproductive output than plants in monoculture. Moreover, positive effects of genotypic diversity were enhanced by the presence of deer, indicating a non-additive interaction between diversity and trophic-level complexity. Genetic selection analyses showed that the selective value of ecologically important traits depended on plant diversity and exposure to deer, demonstrating that community complexity can promote fitness through multiple ecologically and evolutionarily important feedbacks.