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Am Nat. 2012 Mar;179(3):363-74. doi: 10.1086/664080. Epub 2012 Jan 19.

Tritrophic interactions at a community level: effects of host plant species quality on bird predation of caterpillars.

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Department of Biology, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut 06459, USA.


Effects of plant traits on herbivore-carnivore interactions are well documented in component communities but are not well understood at the level of large, complex communities. We report on a 2-year field experiment testing mechanisms by which variation in food quality among eight temperate forest tree species alters avian suppression of an assemblage of dietary generalist caterpillars. Plant quality and bird effects varied dramatically among tree species; high-quality plants yielded herbivores of 50% greater mass than those on low-quality plants, and bird effects ranged from near 0% to 97% reductions in caterpillar density. We also find evidence for two mechanisms linking host plant quality to bird effects. If caterpillar density was statistically controlled for, birds had relatively strong effects on the herbivores of low-quality plants, as predicted by the slow-growth/high-mortality hypothesis. At the same time, caterpillar density increased with plant quality, and bird effects were density dependent. Consequently, the net effect of birds was strongest on the herbivores of high-quality plants, a dynamic we call the high-performance/high-mortality hypothesis. Host plant quality thus changes highly generalized herbivore-carnivore interactions by two complementary but opposing mechanisms. These results highlight the interrelatedness of plant-herbivore and herbivore-carnivore interactions and thus the importance of a tritrophic perspective.

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