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Oecologia. 2008 Apr;155(4):797-808. doi: 10.1007/s00442-007-0948-z. Epub 2008 Jan 12.

Linking limitation to species composition: importance of inter- and intra-specific variation in grazing resistance.

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  • 1WK Kellogg Biological Station and Department of Zoology, Michigan State University, Hickory Corners, MI 49060, USA.


Short-term responses of producers highlight that key nutrients (e.g., N, P)-or combinations of these nutrients-limit primary production in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. These discoveries continue to provide highly valuable insights, but it remains important to ask whether nutrients always predominantly limit producers despite wide variation in nutrient supply and herbivory among systems. After all, predictions from simple food chain models (derived here) readily predict that limitation by grazers can exceed that by nutrients, given sufficient enrichment. However, shifts in composition of producers and/or increasing dominance of invulnerable stages of a producer can, in theory, reduce grazer limitation and retain primacy of nutrient limitation along nutrient supply gradients. We observed both mechanisms (inter- and intra-species variation in vulnerability to herbivory) working in a two-part mesocosm experiment. We incubated diverse benthic algal assemblages for several months either in the presence or absence of benthic macro-grazers in mesocosms that spread a broad range of nutrient supply. We then conducted short-term assays of nutrient and grazer limitation on these communities. In the "historically grazed" assemblages, we found shifts from more edible, better competitors to more resistant producers over enrichment gradients (as anticipated by the food web model built with a tradeoff in resistance vs. competitive abilities). However, contrary to our expectations, "historically ungrazed" assemblages became dominated by producers with vulnerable juvenile forms but inedible adult forms (long filaments). Consequently, we observed higher resource limitation rather than grazer limitation over this nutrient supply gradient in both "historically grazed" (expected) and "historically ungrazed" (not initially expected). Thus, via multiple, general mechanisms involving resistance to grazing (changes in species composition or variation in stage-structured vulnerability), producer assemblages should remain more strongly or as strongly limited by nutrients than grazers, even over large enrichment gradients.

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