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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e43446. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043446. Epub 2012 Sep 7.

'Natural experiment' demonstrates top-down control of spiders by birds on a landscape level.

Author information

1
Department of Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States of America. haldre@rice.edu

Erratum in

  • PLoS One. 2013;8(4). doi:10.1371/annotation/b294c406-c8ae-4c89-a083-5e6e26fb8f22.

Abstract

The combination of small-scale manipulative experiments and large-scale natural experiments provides a powerful approach for demonstrating the importance of top-down trophic control on the ecosystem scale. The most compelling natural experiments have come from studies examining the landscape-scale loss of apex predators like sea otters, wolves, fish and land crabs. Birds are dominant apex predators in terrestrial systems around the world, yet all studies on their role as predators have come from small-scale experiments; the top-down impact of bird loss on their arthropod prey has yet to be examined at a landscape scale. Here, we use a unique natural experiment, the extirpation of insectivorous birds from nearly all forests on the island of Guam by the invasive brown tree snake, to produce the first assessment of the impacts of bird loss on their prey. We focused on spiders because experimental studies showed a consistent top-down effect of birds on spiders. We conducted spider web surveys in native forest on Guam and three nearby islands with healthy bird populations. Spider web densities on the island of Guam were 40 times greater than densities on islands with birds during the wet season, and 2.3 times greater during the dry season. These results confirm the general trend from manipulative experiments conducted in other systems however, the effect size was much greater in this natural experiment than in most manipulative experiments. In addition, bird loss appears to have removed the seasonality of spider webs and led to larger webs in at least one spider species in the forests of Guam than on nearby islands with birds. We discuss several possible mechanisms for the observed changes. Overall, our results suggest that effect sizes from smaller-scale experimental studies may significantly underestimate the impact of bird loss on spider density as demonstrated by this large-scale natural experiment.

PMID:
22970126
PMCID:
PMC3436874
DOI:
10.1371/journal.pone.0043446
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article
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