Foliar herbivory on plants creates soil legacy effects that impact future insect herbivore growth via changes in plant community biomass allocation

Robin Heinen* (Corresponding author), Madhav P. Thakur, Jetske R. Hiddes De Fries, Katja Steinauer, Simon Vandenbrande, Renske Jongen, T. Martijn Bezemer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Plants leave legacy effects in the soil they grow in, which can drive important vegetation processes, including productivity, community dynamics and species turnover. Plants at the same time also face continuous pressure posed by insect herbivores. Given the intimate interactions between plants and herbivores in ecosystems, plant identity and herbivory are likely to interactively shape soil legacies. However, the mechanisms that drive such legacy effects on future generations of plants and associated herbivores are little known. In a greenhouse study, we exposed 10 common grasses and non-leguminous forbs individually to insect herbivory by two closely related noctuid caterpillars, Mamestra brassicae and Trichoplusia ni (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) or kept them free of herbivores. We then used the soil legacies created by these plant individuals to grow a plant community composed of all 10 plant species in each soil and exposed these plant communities to M. brassicae. We measured conditioning plant biomass, soil respiration and chemistry of the conditioned soils, as well as individual plant, plant community and herbivore biomass responses. At the end of the conditioning phase, soils with herbivore legacies had higher soil respiration, but only significantly so for M. brassicae. Herbivore legacies had minimal impacts on community productivity. However, path models reveal that herbivore-induced soil legacies affected responding herbivores through changes in plant community shoot: root ratios. Soil legacy effect patterns differed between functional groups. We found strong plant species and functional group-specific effects on soil respiration parameters, which in turn led to plant community shifts in grass: forb biomass ratios. Soil legacies were negative for the growth of plants of the same functional group. Synthesis. We show that insect herbivory, plant species and their functional groups, all incur soil microbial responses that lead to subtle (herbivory) or strong (plants and their functional group) effects in response plant communities and associated polyphagous herbivores. Hence, even though typically ignored, our study emphasizes that legacies of previous insect herbivory in the soil can influence current soil–plant–insect community interactions. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1047-1062
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number4
Early online date2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • above- and below-ground ecology
  • community ecology
  • grassland
  • herbivory
  • plant–insect interactions
  • plant–soil feedback
  • soil legacy effects
  • NIOO
  • Plan_S-Compliant-OA


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