JOURNAL ARTICLE

Relative importance of biotic and abiotic soil components to plant growth and insect herbivore population dynamics

Martijn L Vandegehuchte, Eduardo de la Peña, Dries Bonte
PloS One 2010 September 23, 5 (9): e12937
20886078

BACKGROUND: Plants are affected by several aspects of the soil, which have the potential to exert cascading effects on the performance of herbivorous insects. The effects of biotic and abiotic soil characteristics have however mostly been investigated in isolation, leaving their relative importance largely unexplored. Such is the case for the dune grass Ammophila, whose decline under decreasing sand accretion is argued to be caused by either biotic or abiotic soil properties.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: By manipulating dune soils from three different regions, we decoupled the contributions of region, the abiotic and biotic soil component to the variation in characteristics of Ammophila arenaria seedlings and Schizaphis rufula aphid populations. Root mass fraction and total dry biomass of plants were affected by soil biota, although the latter effect was not consistent across regions. None of the measured plant properties were significantly affected by the abiotic soil component. Aphid population characteristics all differed between regions, irrespective of whether soil biota were present or absent. Hence these effects were due to differences in abiotic soil properties between regions. Although several chemical properties of the soil mixtures were measured, none of these were consistent with results for plant or aphid traits.

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Plants were affected more strongly by soil biota than by abiotic soil properties, whereas the opposite was true for aphids. Our results thus demonstrate that the relative importance of the abiotic and biotic component of soils can differ for plants and their herbivores. The fact that not all effects of soil properties could be detected across regions moreover emphasizes the need for spatial replication in order to make sound conclusions about the generality of aboveground-belowground interactions.

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