Nutrient availability controls the impact of mammalian herbivores on soil carbon and nitrogen pools in grasslands

Judith Sitters, E. R.Jasper Wubs, Elisabeth S. Bakker, Thomas W. Crowther, Peter B. Adler, Sumanta Bagchi, Jonathan D. Bakker, Lori Biederman, Elizabeth T. Borer, Elsa E. Cleland, Nico Eisenhauer, Jennifer Firn, Laureano Gherardi, Nicole Hagenah, Yann Hautier, Sarah E. Hobbie, Johannes M.H. Knops, Andrew S. MacDougall, Rebecca L. McCulley, Joslin L. MooreBrent Mortensen, Pablo L. Peri, Suzanne M. Prober, Charlotte Riggs, Anita C. Risch, Martin Schütz, Eric W. Seabloom, Julia Siebert, Carly J. Stevens, G. F. Veen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Grasslands are subject to considerable alteration due to human activities globally, including widespread changes in populations and composition of large mammalian herbivores and elevated supply of nutrients. Grassland soils remain important reservoirs of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N). Herbivores may affect both C and N pools and these changes likely interact with increases in soil nutrient availability. Given the scale of grassland soil fluxes, such changes can have striking consequences for atmospheric C concentrations and the climate. Here, we use the Nutrient Network experiment to examine the responses of soil C and N pools to mammalian herbivore exclusion across 22 grasslands, under ambient and elevated nutrient availabilities (fertilized with NPK + micronutrients). We show that the impact of herbivore exclusion on soil C and N pools depends on fertilization. Under ambient nutrient conditions, we observed no effect of herbivore exclusion, but under elevated nutrient supply, pools are smaller upon herbivore exclusion. The highest mean soil C and N pools were found in grazed and fertilized plots. The decrease in soil C and N upon herbivore exclusion in combination with fertilization correlated with a decrease in aboveground plant biomass and microbial activity, indicating a reduced storage of organic matter and microbial residues as soil C and N. The response of soil C and N pools to herbivore exclusion was contingent on temperature – herbivores likely cause losses of C and N in colder sites and increases in warmer sites. Additionally, grasslands that contain mammalian herbivores have the potential to sequester more N under increased temperature variability and nutrient enrichment than ungrazed grasslands. Our study highlights the importance of conserving mammalian herbivore populations in grasslands worldwide. We need to incorporate local-scale herbivory, and its interaction with nutrient enrichment and climate, within global-scale models to better predict land–atmosphere interactions under future climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2060-2071
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number4
Early online dateFeb 3 2020
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was generated using data from the Nutrient Network ( experiment, funded at the site-scale by individual researchers. Coordination and data management have been supported by funding to E.T.B. and E.W.S. from the National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network (NSF-DEB-1042132) and Long Term Ecological Research (NSF-DEB-1234162 to Cedar Creek LTER) programs, and the Institute on the Environment (DG-0001-13). We also thank the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute for hosting project data and the Institute on the Environment for hosting Network meetings. Judith Sitters was financially supported by Strategic Resources of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) and the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), grant 12N2615N. E.R.J.W. was funded by a NWO-RUBICON grant (the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, contract no. 019.181EN.01). G.F.V. was supported by a VENI grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), grant 863.14.013. N.E. and Julia Siebert acknowledge support by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, funded by the German Research Foundation (FZT 118). This is publication number 6912 of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). Author contributions are listed in Table S7 and data contributors are listed in Table S8.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors. Global Change Biology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • Nutrient Network (NutNet)
  • carbon sequestration
  • exclosure
  • fertilization
  • global change
  • grazing
  • herbivory
  • nutrient dynamics
  • nutrient enrichment
  • soil microorganisms


Dive into the research topics of 'Nutrient availability controls the impact of mammalian herbivores on soil carbon and nitrogen pools in grasslands'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this