Bottom–up and top–down forces structuring consumer communities in an experimental grassland

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The interplay between bottom-up and top-down effects is certainly a general manifestation of any changes in both species abundances and diversity. Summary variables, such as species numbers, diversity indices or lumped species abundances provide too limited information about highly complex ecosystems. In contrast, species by species analyses of ecological communities comprising hundreds of species are inevitably only snapshot-like and lack generality in explaining processes within communities.

Our synthesis, based on species matrices of functional groups of all trophic levels, simplifies community complexity to a manageable degree while retaining full species-specific information. Taking into account plant species richness, plant biomass, soil properties and relevant spatial scales, we decompose variance of abundance in consumer functional groups to determine the direction and the magnitude of community controlling processes.

After decades of intensive research, the relative importance of top–down and bottom–up control for structuring ecological communities is still a particularly disputed issue among ecologists. In our study, we determine the relative role of bottom–up and top–down forces in structuring the composition of 13 arthropod functional groups (FG) comprising different trophic consumer levels. Based on species-specific plant biomass and arthropod abundance data from 50 plots of a grassland biodiversity experiment, we quantified the proportions of bottom–up and top–down forces on consumer FG composition while taking into account direct and indirect effects of plant diversity, functional diversity, community biomass, soil properties and spatial arrangement of these plots. Variance partitioning using partial redundancy analysis explained 21–44% of total variation in arthropod functional group composition. Plant-mediated bottom–up forces accounted for the major part of the explainable variation within the composition of all FGs. Predator-mediated top–down forces, however, were much weaker, yet influenced the majority of consumer FGs. Plant functional group composition, notably legume composition, had the most important impact on virtually all consumer FGs. Compared to plant species richness and plant functional group richness, plant community biomass explained a much higher proportion of variation in consumer community composition.

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