Responses of belowground communities to large aboveground herbivores: Meta-analysis reveals biome-dependent patterns and critical research gaps

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Abstract

The importance of herbivore–plant and soil biota–plant interactions in terrestrial ecosystems is amply recognized, but the effects of aboveground herbivores on soil biota remain challenging to predict. To find global patterns in belowground responses to vertebrate herbivores, we performed a meta-analysis of studies that had measured abundance or activity of soil organisms inside and outside field exclosures (areas that excluded herbivores). Responses were often controlled by climate, ecosystem type, and dominant herbivore identity. Soil microfauna and especially root-feeding nematodes were negatively affected by herbivores in subarctic sites. In arid ecosystems, herbivore presence tended to reduce microbial biomass and nitrogen mineralization. Herbivores decreased soil respiration in subarctic ecosystems and increased it in temperate ecosystems, but had no net effect on microbial biomass or nitrogen mineralization in those ecosystems. Responses of soil fauna, microbial biomass, and nitrogen mineralization shifted from neutral to negative with increasing herbivore body size. Responses of animal decomposers tended to switch from negative to positive with increasing precipitation, but also differed among taxa, for instance Oribatida responded negatively to herbivores, whereas Collembola did not. Our findings imply that losses and gains of aboveground herbivores will interact with climate and land use changes, inducing functional shifts in soil communities. To conceptualize the mechanisms behind our findings and link them with previous theoretical frameworks, we propose two complementary approaches to predict soil biological responses to vertebrate herbivores, one focused on an herbivore body size gradient, and the other on a climate severity gradient. Major research gaps were revealed, with tropical biomes, protists, and soil macrofauna being especially overlooked.

The effects of herbivores on ecosystem functioning belowground are not as well understood as aboveground. To find global patterns in soil biological responses to vertebrate herbivores, a meta-analysis on field exclosure studies was performed. Soil biological responses depended on the biome and varied across and within soil food web levels. Climate group, herbivore identity, and herbivore body size were stronger controls than ecosystem type. We propose a conceptual framework to update previous theory and predict soil biological responses to vertebrate herbivores.

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