Herbivores and nutrients control grassland plant diversity via light limitation

Elizabeth T. Borer, Eric W. Seabloom, Daniel S. Gruner, W. Stanley Harpole, Helmut Hillebrand, Eric M. Lind, Peter B. Adler, Juan Alberti, T. Michael Anderson, Jonathan D. Bakker, Lori Biederman, Dana Blumenthal, Cynthia S. Brown, Lars A. Brudvig, Yvonne M. Buckley, Marc Cadotte, Chengjin Chu, Elsa E. Cleland, Michael J. Crawley, Pedro DaleoEllen I. Damschen, Kendi F. Davies, Nicole M. Decrappeo, Guozhen Du, Jennifer Firn, Yann Hautier, Robert W. Heckman, Andy Hector, Janneke Hillerislambers, Oscar Iribarne, Julia A. Klein, Johannes M.H. Knops, Kimberly J. La Pierre, Andrew D.B. Leakey, Wei Li, Andrew S. MacDougall, Rebecca L. McCulley, Brett A. Melbourne, Charles E. Mitchell, Joslin L. Moore, Brent Mortensen, Lydia R. O'Halloran, John L. Orrock, Jesús Pascual, Suzanne M. Prober, David A. Pyke, Anita C. Risch, Martin Schuetz, Melinda D. Smith, Carly J. Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

671 Scopus citations


Human alterations to nutrient cycles and herbivore communities are affecting global biodiversity dramatically. Ecological theory predicts these changes should be strongly counteractive: nutrient addition drives plant species loss through intensified competition for light, whereas herbivores prevent competitive exclusion by increasing ground-level light, particularly in productive systems. Here we use experimental data spanning a globally relevant range of conditions to test the hypothesis that herbaceous plant species losses caused by eutrophication may be offset by increased light availability due to herbivory. This experiment, replicated in 40 grasslands on 6 continents, demonstrates that nutrients and herbivores can serve as counteracting forces to control local plant diversity through light limitation, independent of site productivity, soil nitrogen, herbivore type and climate. Nutrient addition consistently reduced local diversity through light limitation, and herbivory rescued diversity at sites where it alleviated light limitation. Thus, species loss from anthropogenic eutrophication can be ameliorated in grasslands where herbivory increases ground-level light.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)517-520
Number of pages4
Issue number7497
StatePublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements This work uses data from the Nutrient Network (http:// nutnet.org)experiment,fundedatthe sitescale byindividualresearchers.Coordination and data management are supported by funding to E. Borer and E. Seabloom from the NSF Research Coordination Network (NSF-DEB-1042132) and Long Term Ecological Research (NSF-DEB-1234162 to Cedar Creek LTER) programs and the UMN Institute on the Environment (DG-0001-13). The Minnesota Supercomputer Institute hosts project data. We are grateful to F. Isbell for suggestions that improved the manuscript. Any use of trade names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.


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