Predators have outsized influence over habitats, research says

Jun 14, 2012
This is a grasshopper in the field. Credit: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

A grasshopper's change in diet to high-energy carbohydrates while being hunted by spiders may affect the way soil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to Yale and Hebrew University researchers in Science.

Grasshoppers like to munch on nitrogen-rich grass because it stimulates their growth and reproduction. But when spiders enter the picture, grasshoppers cope with the stress from fear of by shifting to carbohydrate-rich plants, setting in motion dynamic changes to the ecosystem they inhabit.

"Under they go to different parts of the and choose different foods, changing the makeup of the plant community," said Oswald Schmitz, a co-author of the study,"Fear of Predation Slows Plant-Litter ," and Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).

The high-energy, diet also tilts a grasshopper's body chemistry toward carbon at the expense of nitrogen. So when a grasshopper dies, its carcass breaks down more slowly, thus depriving the soil of high-quality fertilizer and slowing the decomposition of uneaten plants. Microbes in the soil require a lot of nitrogen to function and to produce the enzymes that break down .

"It only takes a slight change in the chemical composition of that animal biomass to fundamentally alter how much the microbial pool is releasing to the atmosphere while it is decomposing plant organic matter," said Schmitz. "So this shows that animals could potentially have huge effects on the global carbon balance because they're changing the way microbes respire organic matter."

The researchers found that the rate at which the organic matter of leaves decomposed increased between 60 percent and 200 percent in stress-free conditions relative to stressed conditions, which they consider "huge." "Climate and litter quality are considered the main controls on organic-matter decomposition, but we show that aboveground predators change how soil microbes break down organic matter," said Mark Bradford, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of terrestrial ecosystem ecology at F&ES.

Schmitz added: "What it means is that we're not paying enough attention to the control that animals have over what we view as a classically important process in ecosystem functioning."

The researchers took soil from the field, put it in test tubes and ground up grasshopper carcasses obtained either from predation or predation-free environments. They then sprinkled the powder atop the soil, where the microbes digested it. When the carcasses were completely decomposed, the researchers added leaf litter and then measured the rate of leaf-litter decomposition. The experiment was then replicated in the field at Yale Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut.

"It was a two-stage process where the grasshoppers were used to prime the soil, and then we measured the consequences of that priming," said Schmitz.

Schmitz said that the effect of animals on ecosystems is disproportionately larger than their biomass would suggest. "Traditionally people have thought animals had no important role in recycling of organic matter, because their biomass is relatively small to all of that plant material that's entering ecosystems," he said. "We need to pay more attention to the role of animals because in an era of biodiversity loss we're losing many top predators and larger herbivores from ecosystems."

Explore further: Barnacles hold clues about how climate change is affecting the deep ocean

More information: "Fear of Predation Slows Plant-Litter Decomposition," by D. Hawlena, Science, 2012.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

slayerwulfe
not rated yet Jun 15, 2012
my only comment my only question are the soil conditions for grasshoppers that are the victims of predators different from samples where the grasshoppers were not victims. what is the difference between a grasshopper and a locust and have you eliminated all other organic consumers from the equation. are spiders the only predators of grasshoppers ? i saw a fish eat one once, testing pond muck the next phase???
slayerwulfe
not rated yet Jun 15, 2012
i have to ask more. where was this study conducted field or lab. do you think the results would be different in the Amazon basin compared to the Levant. is this politically motivated?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.