UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Trophic effects on nutrient cycling Ngai, Jacqueline


The top-down effects of consumers and bottom-up effects of resource availability are important in determining community structure and ecological processes. I experimentally examined the roles of consumers — both detritivores and predators — and habitat context in affecting nutrient cycling using the detritus-based insect community in bromeliad leaf wells. I also investigated the role of multiple resources in limiting plant productivity using meta analyses. The insect community in bromeliads only increased nitrogen release from leaf detritus in the presence of a predator trophic level. When only detritivores were present, the flow of stable isotope-labeled nitrogen from detritus to bromeliads was statistically indistinguishable from that in bromeliads lacking insects. I suggest that emergence of adult detritivores constitutes a loss of nitrogen from bromeliad ecosystems, and that predation reduces the rate of this nutrient loss. Hence, insects facilitate nutrient uptake by the plant, but only if both predators and detritivores are present. Moreover, predators can affect nutrient cycling by influencing the spatial scale of prey turnover. This mechanism results in a pattern opposite to that predicted by classic trophic cascade theory. Increasing habitat complexity can have implications for nutrient cycling by decreasing the foraging efficiency of both predators and their prey, and by affecting the vulnerability of predators to intraguild predation. Along a natural gradient in bromeliad size, I found that, depending on the relationship between community composition and habitat size, habitat complexity interacts with the changing biotic community to either complement or counteract the impact of predators on nutrient uptake by bromeliads. In contrast to the existing emphasis on single-resource limitation of primary productivity, meta-analyses of a database of 653 studies revealed widespread limitation by multiple resources, and frequent interaction between these resources in restricting plant growth. A framework for analyzing fertilization studies is outlined, with explicit consideration of the possible role of multiple resources. I also review a range of mechanisms responsible for the various forms of resource limitation that are observed in fertilization experiments. These studies emphasize that a wider range of predator and nutrient impacts should be considered, beyond the paradigm of single resource limitation or classic trophic cascades.

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