Trait similarity patterns within grass and grasshopper communities: multitrophic community assembly at work

der Plas, F Van
Anderson, T M
Olff, H
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Trait-based community assembly theory suggests that trait variation among co-occurring species is shaped by two main processes: abiotic filtering, important in stressful environments and promoting similarity, and competition, more important in productive environments and promoting dissimilarity. Previous studies have indeed found trait similarity to decline along productivity gradients. However, these studies have always been done on single trophic levels. Here, we investigated how interactions between trophic levels affect trait similarity patterns along environmental gradients. We propose three hypotheses for the main drivers of trait similarity patterns of plants and herbivores along environmental gradients: (1) environmental control of both, (2) bottom-up control of herbivore trait variation, and (3) top-down control of grass trait variation. To test this, we collected data on the community composition and trait variation of grasses (41 species) and grasshoppers (53 species) in 50 plots in a South African savanna. Structural equation models were used to investigate how the range and spacing of within-community functional trait values of both grasses and their insect herbivores (grasshoppers, Acrididae) respond to (1) rainfall and fire frequency gradients and (2) the trait similarity patterns of the other trophic level. The analyses revealed that traits of co-occurring grasses became more similar toward lower rainfall and higher fire frequency (environmental control), while showing little evidence for top-down control. Grasshopper trait range patterns, on the other hand, were mostly directly driven by vegetation structure and grass trait range patterns (bottom-up control), while environmental factors had mostly indirect effects via plant traits. Our study shows the potential to expand trait-based community assembly theory to include trophic interactions.
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Grassland Society of Southern Africa

The Grassland Society of Southern Africa (GSSA) is involved and concerned with the science and practice of range and pasture management. This broad field involves primarily the use and conservation of natural resources. It encompasses applied fields such as livestock production, wildlife management, nature conservation, water catchment management and range and mine-dump rehabilitation. The disciplines include, amongst others, ecology, botany zoology, range and pasture science, animal science, soil science and genetics. This collection includes journal articles from the African Journal of Range and Forage Science as well as related articles and reports from throughout the Southern African region.