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Interactive effects of insects and ungulates on root growth in a native grassland


J. F. Cahill, Jr., Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2E9, Canada. E-mail:


Insects and ungulates co-occur in grasslands, often feeding on the same plants at the same time and potentially having interactive effects on plant growth. Further, ungulate–insect interactions may differ between native ungulate guilds and domesticated cattle. Despite the prevalence of insects and ungulates in native grasslands, experiments simultaneously manipulating the densities of both these groups are rare. Using large, replicated paddocks, as well as insecticide application, we restricted access to vegetation by each group of herbivores. We also manipulated the species identity of the ungulate assemblage, allowing us to determine whether there are differential effects between native ungulate guilds (bison, elk and deer) and cattle on plant biomass. We found interactive effects of insect and ungulate herbivores on root growth. When insects were suppressed, both native ungulates and cattle caused an approximate doubling of root biomass. However, this stimulatory effect of ungulate grazing was eliminated when insects were also present. In contrast, neither insects nor ungulates had significant effects on shoot biomass at these densities. As a result, the dominant effects of above-ground herbivory was on belowground plant growth. We suggest the effects of insect and ungulate assemblages on root biomass appear important in regulating primary production in this grassland and may account for some of the contradictory plant responses to ungulate herbivory in the literature.