Theses Doctoral

Linking plant traits and herbivory in grassland biodiversity-ecosystem functioning research

Flynn, Dan F. B.

Increased availability of data on morphological, physiological, and behavioral traits of species has improved understanding of the processes driving community assembly and the consequences of community disassembly for ecosystem functioning. In addition, there has also been a call for advancing the multitrophic view of biodiversity- ecosystem functioning. Here I propose a trait-based framework to merge plant-herbivore interactions with biodiversity-ecosystem function relationships. This framework links plant growth and defense strategies, herbivore feeding preferences, and primary production in terrestrial plant communities. I empirically tested these proposed linkages in laboratory and field experiments carried out in the understudied grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China. I found that a dominant generalist grasshopper Oedaleus asiaticus exhibits feeding preference for plants of high palatability when equally available, but in the field feeds on nearly any graminoid which is dominant. This behavior potentially allows subdominant plants to coexist, maintaining plant diversity. To link feeding behavior to consequences for plant communities, I carried out detailed measurements of plant morphological and physiological traits in the field and experimentally manipulated grasshopper feeding intensity. Using a novel analytical tool, I found that plant communities in these grasslands exhibit high niche overlap, regardless of intensity of herbivory by grasshoppers or sheep. This result indicates that environmental filtering structures these communities more than limiting similarity. Extending the use of traits beyond the study system in Inner Mongolia, I test the how both functional and phylogenetic diversity explain the biodiversity effect on grassland ecosystem functioning. The promise for merging tools from evolutionary biology and functional ecology is great, as these diversity metrics provide superior explanatory power in a meta-analysis of biodiversity experiments. Future work should be addressed at clarifying which functional traits are most strongly reflected in measures of phylogenetic diversity, including strategies of compensating for or avoiding herbivory.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Thesis Advisors
Naeem, Shahid
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 28, 2011