LINKING BIOGEOGRAPHY AND COMMUNITY ECOLOGY: LATITUDINAL VARIATION IN PLANT–HERBIVORE INTERACTION STRENGTH

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Abstract

Ecological interactions may vary geographically as a function of diversity, density, or per capita interaction strengths, but we know little about the relative importance of these three mechanisms. We examined variation in species richness, abundance, and interactions among leaf-chewing herbivores and the dominant salt-marsh plant Spartina alterniflora along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. High-latitude S. alterniflora plants are more palatable to herbivores than are low-latitude plants. Within this range of latitude, diversity and density of the dominant leaf-chewing consumers, snails and grasshoppers, in Spartina-dominated portions of the marsh varied little. Low-latitude plants, however, experienced much greater levels of leaf damage from consumers than did high-latitude plants. Per capita feeding rates of low-latitude snails (Littoraria irrorata) and grasshoppers (Orchelimum fidicinum) in the laboratory were greater than feeding rates of high-latitude snails (Melampus bidentatus) and grasshoppers (Conocephalus spartinae). In field experiments, low-latitude snails strongly suppressed S. alterniflora growth, but high-latitude snails had no effect on primary production. Thus, latitudinal differences in the effect of herbivores on plants (i.e., interaction strength), driven by differences in per capita effects among species, rather than differences in diversity or density, may contribute to selection for latitudinal differences in plant palatability. Because geographical differences in interaction strength can occur in the absence of differences in diversity or density, linking biogeography with community ecology will require experimental studies that explicitly measure interaction strength at multiple geographic locations.

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