Nutrient subsidies to belowground microbes impact aboveground food web interactions

Jes Hines, J Patrick Megonigal, Robert F Denno
Ecology 2006, 87 (6): 1542-55
Historically, terrestrial food web theory has been compartmentalized into interactions among aboveground or belowground communities. In this study we took a more synthetic approach to understanding food web interactions by simultaneously examining four trophic levels and investigating how nutrient (nitrogen and carbon) and detrital subsidies impact the ability of the belowground microbial community to alter the abundance of aboveground arthropods (herbivores and predators) associated with the intertidal cord grass Spartina alterniflora. We manipulated carbon, nitrogen, and detrital resources in a field experiment and measured decomposition rate, soil nitrogen pools, plant biomass and quality, herbivore density, and arthropod predator abundance. Because carbon subsidies impact plant growth only indirectly (microbial pathways), whereas nitrogen additions both directly (plant uptake) and indirectly (microbial pathways) impact plant primary productivity, we were able to assess the effect of both belowground soil microbes and nutrient availability on aboveground herbivores and their predators. Herbivore density in the field was suppressed by carbon supplements. Carbon addition altered soil microbial dynamics (net potential ammonification, litter decomposition rate, DON [dissolved organic N] concentration), which limited inorganic soil nitrogen availability and reduced plant size as well as predator abundance. Nitrogen addition enhanced herbivore density by increasing plant size and quality directly by increasing inorganic soil nitrogen pools, and indirectly by enhancing microbial nitrification. Detritus adversely affected aboveground herbivores mainly by promoting predator aggregation. To date, the effects of carbon and nitrogen subsidies on salt marshes have been examined as isolated effects on either the aboveground or the belowground community. Our results emphasize the importance of directly addressing the soil microbial community as a factor that influences aboveground food web structure by affecting plant size and aboveground plant nitrogen.

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