Predator diversity, habitat complexity and the strength of terrestrial trophic cascades

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2005-04-15

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Food web complexity is thought to weaken the strength of terrestrial trophic cascades whereby strong natural enemy impacts on herbivores cascade to indirectly influence primary production. Predator diversity can enhance food web complexity by promoting the occurrence of intraguild predation, wherein predators feed on each other and on shared prey. In such cases, theory suggests that the impact of predation on herbivores relaxes and cascading effects on basal resources are dampened. In a terrestrial marsh community, I compared arthropod predator impacts on herbivores and plant productivity between a simple food web with a single predator species and a complex food web with a diverse predator assemblage. I found that enhancing predator diversity dampened enemy effects on herbivores and weakened trophic cascades. The role of intraguild predators in dampening such trophic cascades was determined by factorially manipulating predator species richness (1, 2, or 3 species) and predator trophic composition (strict predators, intraguild predators, or a mixture of both) and measuring their effects on prey suppression and plant productivity. I found that the impact of predator richness on the strength of trophic cascades was dependent on the trophic composition of the predator complex present. Specifically, strict predators additively enhanced planthopper suppression and increased plant productivity with an increase in species richness. However, intraguild predators interacted antagonistically, resulting in greater herbivore abundance and lower plant productivity at the highest levels of species richness. An investigation of the influence of habitat complexity on cascading predator effects revealed that complex habitats with cordgrass leaf litter provided a refuge for predators from intraguild predation and elevated planthopper suppression by the diverse predator assemblage. However, reducing the antagonistic predator-predator interactions and increasing prey suppression did not enhance the conductance of predator effects through the food web to impact positively primary producers, although there was a trend towards greater plant biomass in the complex-structured habitat. Therefore, the possibility exists that changes in habitat complexity might enhance trophic cascades and impact positively productivity by mediating trophic interactions among predators. Overall, interactions between species diversity at higher trophic levels and habitat structure can significantly alter ecosystem function in natural systems.

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