Two wrongs may not make a right. But when it comes to grassland plant species diversity, it just might. Two impacts often controlled by humans being fertilized and being eaten can combine to the benefit of biodiversity, according to an innovative international study led by U of M researchers Elizabeth Borer and Eric Seabloom.
The findings, published March 9 in the online edition of Nature in advance of print publication, are important in a world where humans are changing both herbivore distribution and the supply of nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus, and where understanding the interplay among nutrients, herbivores and plant growth is critical to our capacity to feed a growing human population and protect threatened species and ecosystems.
To conduct the study, Borer and Seabloom enlisted the help of the Nutrient Network, or NutNet, a collaborative international experiment they and a few colleagues founded in 2005 as a resource for understanding how grasslands around the world will respond to a changing environment. NutNet scientists at 40 sites on six continents set up research plots with and without added fertilizer and with and without fences to keep out the local herbivores such as deer, kangaroos, sheep or zebras. Every year since then, they have measured the amount of plant material grown, light reaching the ground, and number of species of plants growing in the plots.
When the researchers compared data across the 40 study sites, they found that fertilizing reduced the number of plant species in the plots as species less able to tolerate a lack of light were literally overshadowed by fast-growing neighbors. On both fertilized and unfertilized plots, where removal of vegetation by herbivores increased the amount of light that struck the ground, plant species diversity increased. And these results held true whether the grassland was in Minnesota, Argentina or China, and whether the herbivores involved were rabbits,
|Contact: Stephanie Xenos|
University of Minnesota