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Plant diversity and insect herbivores: effects of environmental change in contrasting model systems

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Publication details

DatePublished - Apr 2003
Issue number1
Number of pages12
Pages (from-to)617
Original languageEnglish


There is increasing concern over the potential impact of anthropogenic factors (e.g. increasing nutrient inputs, global climate change) on the rate of loss of diversity in ecosystems. Such losses may affect ecosystem processes. In addition, a change in diversity of one group of organisms may influence the diversity of species of the next trophic level. We examined the extent to which plant species richness influences that of insect herbivores in two systems: a long-term field experiment on heather moorland and a model community in the Ecotron controlled environment facility. We examined the response of these two plant communities to environmental change, specifically increased levels of nutrients, grazing and atmospheric CO2. We measured the indirect effects of changes in these factors on insect herbivores, both above- and below-ground. In the moorland system, grazing was the largest influence on plant community structure. The community was dominated by one species, Calluna vnlgaris, and loss of cover under heavy grazing allowed competing species to invade. However, grazing regime was not a major influence on the species richness of the insect herbivore community. Site was more important: there were a greater number of Hemiptera species on sites with more mineral soils than on peat sites, possibly because a greater variety of grass and herb species was present on the former sites. In the Ecotron, below-ground factors were also important drivers of community change: elevated CO, increased carbon availability in the soil and there were simultaneous changes in the community composition of soil biota. Above-ground., some plant species increased in abundance and others decreased, leading to interaction-specific effects on the insect herbivores. In two very different studies of the effects of environmental change on the interactions between plants and their herbivores, several similar conclusions can be drawn: (1) effects are likely to be site- and interaction-specific; (2) outcomes are likely to be strongly dependent on the initial state and the dominant species of the plant community; and (3) indirect effects, often mediated by below-ground factors, may have a bigger influence on insect-plant interactions than more direct effects of above-ground factors.

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