Positive interactions between herbivores and plant diversity shape forest regeneration

Susan C. Cook-Patton, Marina LaForgia, John D. Parker

Abstract

The effects of herbivores and diversity on plant communities have been studied separately but rarely in combination. We conducted two concurrent experiments over 3 years to examine how tree seedling diversity, density and herbivory affected forest regeneration. One experiment factorially manipulated plant diversity (one versus 15 species) and the presence/absence of deer (Odocoileus virginianus). We found that mixtures outperformed monocultures only in the presence of deer. Selective browsing on competitive dominants and associational protection from less palatable species appear responsible for this herbivore-driven diversity effect. The other experiment manipulated monospecific plant density and found little evidence for negative density dependence. Combined, these experiments suggest that the higher performance in mixture was owing to the acquisition of positive interspecific interactions rather than the loss of negative intraspecific interactions. Overall, we emphasize that realistic predictions about the consequences of changing biodiversity will require a deeper understanding of the interaction between plant diversity and higher trophic levels. If we had manipulated only plant diversity, we would have missed an important positive interaction across trophic levels: diverse seedling communities better resist herbivores, and herbivores help to maintain seedling diversity.

  • Received January 31, 2014.
  • Accepted March 17, 2014.
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