Light competition drives herbivore and nutrient effects on plant diversity

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Springer Nature
Enrichment of nutrients and loss of herbivores are assumed to cause a loss of plant diversity in grassland ecosystems because they increase plant cover, which leads to a decrease of light in the understory. Empirical tests of the role of competition for light in natural systems are based on indirect evidence, and have been a topic of debate for the last 40 years. Here we show that experimentally restoring light to understory plants in a natural grassland mitigates the loss of plant diversity that is caused by either nutrient enrichment or the absence of mammalian herbivores. The initial effect of light addition on restoring diversity under fertilization was transitory and outweighed by the greater effect of herbivory on light levels, indicating that herbivory is a major factor that controls diversity, partly through light. Our results provide direct experimental evidence, in a natural system, that competition for light is a key mechanism that contributes to the loss of biodiversity after cessation of mammalian herbivory. Our findings also show that the effects of herbivores can outpace the effects of fertilization on competition for light. Management practices that target maintaining grazing by native or domestic herbivores could therefore have applications in protecting biodiversity in grassland ecosystems, because they alleviate competition for light in the understory.
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Eskelinen, A., Harpole, W.S., Jessen, MT. et al. Light competition drives herbivore and nutrient effects on plant diversity. Nature 611, 301–305 (2022).