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Oecologia. 2004 Jan;138(2):242-52. Epub 2003 Oct 18.

Secondary succession is influenced by belowground insect herbivory on a productive site.

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Department of Community Ecology, UFZ Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig-Halle, Theodor-Lieser-Strasse 4, 06120 Halle, Germany.


We investigated the effects of insect herbivory on a plant community of a productive old-field community by applying foliar and soil insecticides in a full factorial design. During the first 3 years of succession, insecticide treatments had only minor effects on total cover abundance and species richness. However, species ranking within the plant community was strongly affected by soil insecticide but not by foliar insecticide. Creeping thistle, Cirsium arvense, dominated the experimental plots with reduced root herbivory, while square-stemmed willow-herb, Epilobium adnatum, dominated the control and the plots with foliar insecticide. When soil insecticide was applied, cover abundance of monocarpic forbs increased and cover abundance of polycarpic herbs decreased compared to the control. However, this effect was due to a few abundant plant species and is not based on a consistent difference between life history groups. Instead, application of soil insecticide promoted persistence of species that established at the start of succession, and suppressed species that established in the following years. We conclude that below-ground herbivory reduces competitive ability of resident species and, thus, facilitates colonization by late-successional species. Hence, soil insects can exert strong top-down effects on the vegetation of productive sites by affecting dominant plant species and altering competitive balances.

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