Multiple nutrients and herbivores interact to govern diversity, productivity, composition, and infection in a successional grassland

Elizabeth T. Borer, Eric W. Seabloom, Charles E. Mitchell, James P. Cronin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


In spite of increasing awareness that interactions between herbivory and the supply rates of multiple nutrients control biodiversity, ecosystem functions and ecosystem services in ecological communities, few experimental studies have concurrently examined the independent and joint effects of multiple nutrients and mammalian consumers on these responses in natural systems. Here we quantify the independent and interactive effects of multiple concurrent changes to resources and consumers in an invaded annual grassland community in California. In a two-year study using thirty-seven 400-m2 plots, we examine interactions among four nutrient treatments (N, P, K and micronutrients) and a keystone herbivore (pocket gopher Thomomys bottae) on four plant community outcomes: 1) plant diversity, 2) functional group composition, 3) net biomass production, an important ecosystem function, and 4) infection risk by a group of viral pathogens shared by crop and non-crop grasses (barley and cereal yellow dwarf viruses), an important regulating ecosystem service. We found that grassland biodiversity and infection risk were controlled by nutrient identity and supply ratio whereas nutrients interacted strongly with consumers to control grassland composition and net primary productivity. The most important insights arising from this multi-factor experiment are that net biomass production increased with phosphorus or nitrogen supply; however, when gophers were present, nitrogen caused no net effect on biomass production. In addition, infection risk was driven by phosphorus, nitrogen and micronutrient supply. Infection in a sentinel host increased strongly with the addition of micronutrients or phosphorus; however, infection declined with increasing N/P supply ratio, indicating stoichiometric control of infection risk. Finally, in spite of manipulating multiple factors, plant species richness declined with nitrogen, alone. The importance of higher-order interactions demonstrates that a multi-factor approach is critical for effective predictions in a world in which anthropogenic activities are simultaneously changing herbivore abundance and the relative supply of many nutrients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)214-224
Number of pages11
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2014


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