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Keywords:

  • Biodiversity;
  • coexistence;
  • herbivory;
  • insect herbivores;
  • long-term experiments;
  • molluscs

Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 1246–1253

Abstract

The importance of invertebrate herbivores in regulating plant communities remains unclear, due to the absence of long-term exclusion experiments. An experiment in an English grassland involving long-term exclusions of insect and mollusc herbivores, along with rabbit fencing, showed strong, but opposing, effects of the invertebrate herbivores. Plant species richness declined and biomass increased following insect exclusion, due to increased dominance by a grass species, whereas mollusc exclusion led to increased herbs abundance. The two herbivores had a compensatory interaction: molluscs had no effects in the absence of insects and large insect effects depended on the absence of molluscs. The effects of invertebrate exclusion became apparent only after 8 years, and would have been seriously underestimated in shorter studies. Our results suggest that theorists and conservation managers need to shift from their historic focus on vertebrate herbivory, to a recognition that invertebrates can be equally important drivers of plant community structure.