Removal of an apex predator initiates a trophic cascade that extends from herbivores to vegetation and the soil nutrient pool

Full citation: 
Morris T, Letnic M. 2017 Removal of an apex predator initiates a trophic cascade that extends from herbivores to vegetation and the soil nutrient pool. Proc. R. Soc. B 284: 20170111
Author/s associated with the CES: 
Mike Letnic

Abstract: It is widely assumed that organisms at low trophic levels, particularly microbes and plants, are essential to basic services in ecosystems, such as nutrient cycling. In theory, apex predators' effects on ecosystems could extend to nutrient cycling and the soil nutrient pool by influencing the intensity and spatial organization of herbivory. Here, we take advantage of a long-term manipulation of dingo abundance across Australia's dingo-proof fence in the Strzelecki Desert to investigate the effects that removal of an apex predator has on herbivore abundance, vegetation and the soil nutrient pool. Results showed that kangaroos were more abundant where dingoes were rare, and effects of kangaroo exclusion on vegetation, and total carbon, total nitrogen and available phosphorus in the soil were marked where dingoes were rare, but negligible where dingoes were common. By showing that a trophic cascade resulting from an apex predator's lethal effects on herbivores extends to the soil nutrient pool, we demonstrate a hitherto unappreciated pathway via which predators can influence nutrient dynamics. A key implication of our study is the vast spatial scale across which apex predators' effects on herbivore populations operate and, in turn, effects on the soil nutrient pool and ecosystem productivity could become manifest.

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