Climatic stress mediates the impacts of herbivory on plant population structure and components of individual fitness

Allison M. Louthan, Daniel F. Doak, Jacob R. Goheen, Todd M. Palmer, Robert Mitchell Pringle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Past studies have shown that the strength of top-down herbivore control on plant physiological performance, abundance and distribution patterns can shift with abiotic stress, but it is still unclear whether herbivores generally exert stronger effects on plants in stressful or in nonstressful environments. One hypothesis suggests that herbivores' effects on plant biomass and fitness should be strongest in stressful areas, because stressed plants are less able to compensate for herbivore damage. Alternatively, herbivores may reduce plant biomass and fitness more substantially in nonstressful areas, either because plant growth rates in the absence of herbivory are higher and/or because herbivores are more abundant and diverse in nonstressful areas. We test these predictions of where herbivores should exert stronger effects by measuring individual performance, population size structure and densities of a common subshrub, Hibiscus meyeri, in a large-scale herbivore exclosure experiment arrayed across an aridity gradient in East Africa. We find support for both predictions, with herbivores exerting stronger effects on individual-level performance in arid (stressful) areas, but exerting stronger effects on population size structure and abundance in mesic (nonstressful) areas. We suggest that this discrepancy arises from higher potential growth rates in mesic areas, where alleviation of herbivory leads to substantially more growth and thus large changes in population size structure. Differences in herbivore abundance do not appear to contribute to our results. Synthesis. Our work suggests that understanding the multiple facets of plant response to herbivores (e.g. both individual performance and abundance) may be necessary to predict how plant species' abundance and distribution patterns will shift in response to changing climate and herbivore numbers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1074-1083
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


  • Aridity
  • Climate change
  • Plant distributions
  • Plant-herbivore interactions
  • Population dynamics
  • Savannas
  • Stress gradients


Dive into the research topics of 'Climatic stress mediates the impacts of herbivory on plant population structure and components of individual fitness'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this