A food web perspective on large herbivore community limitation


  • Hervé Fritz,

  • Michel Loreau,

  • Simon Chamaillé-Jammes,

  • Marion Valeix,

  • Jean Clobert

H. Fritz (herve.fritz@univ-lyonl.fr) and M. Valeix, CNRS UMR 5558, Laboratoire de Biométrie et Biologie Evolutive, Univ. Claude Bernard – Lyon 1, Bât. Gregor Mendel, 43 Bd du 11 Novembre 1918, FR-69622 Villeurbanne Cedex, France. – M. Loreau, Dept of Biology, McGill Univ., 1205 Ave. Docteur Penfield, Montreal, QC H3A 1B1, Canada. – S. Chamaillé-Jammes, Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, UMR 5175 CNRS, FR-34293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France. – J. Clobert, Station d'Ecologie Expérimentale du CNRS à Moulis, Laboratoire Evolution er Diversité Biologique, Moulis, FR-09200 Saint-Girons, France.


The exceptional diversity of large mammals in African savannas provides an ideal opportunity to explore the relative importance of top-down and bottom-up controls of large terrestrial herbivore communities. Recent work has emphasized the role of herbivore and carnivore body size in shaping these trophic relationships. However, the lack of across-ecosystem comparisons using a common methodology prohibits general conclusions. Here we used published data on primary production, herbivore and carnivore densities and diets to estimate the consumption fluxes between three trophic levels in four African savanna ecosystems. Our food web approach suggests that the body size distribution within and across trophic levels has a strong influence on the strength of top-down control of herbivores by carnivores and on consumption fluxes within ecosystems, as predicted by theoretical food web models. We generalize findings from the Serengeti ecosystem that suggest herbivore species below 150 kg are more likely to be limited by predation. We also emphasize the key functional role played by the largest species at each trophic level. The abundance of the largest herbivore species largely governs the consumption of primary production in resident communities. Similarly, predator guilds in which the largest carnivore species represent a larger share of carnivore biomass are likely to exert a stronger top-down impact on herbivores. Our study shows how a food web approach allows integrating current knowledge and offers a powerful framework to better understand the functioning of ecosystems.