Both bottom-up (e.g. nutrients) and top-down (e.g. herbivory) forces structure plant communities, but it remains unclear how they affect the relative importance of stochastic and deterministic processes in plant community assembly. Moreover, different sized herbivores have been shown to have contrasting effects on community structure and function, but their effects on the processes governing community assembly (i.e. how they generate the impacts on structure) remain largely unknown. We evaluated the influence of bottom-up and top-down forces on the relative importance of deterministic and stochastic processes during plant community assembly. We used the data of a 7-year factorial experiment manipulating nutrient availability (ambient and increased) and the presence of vertebrate herbivores (> 1 kg) of different body size in a floodplain grassland in The Netherlands. We used a null model that describes a community composition expected by chance (i.e. stochastic assembly) and compared the plant community composition in the different treatments with this null model (the larger the difference, the more deterministically assembled). Our results showed that herbivore exclusion promoted a more stochastic plant community assembly, whereas increased nutrients played a relatively minor role in determining the relative importance of stochasticity in community assembly. Large herbivores facilitated intermediate-sized mammal herbivores, resulting in synergistic effects of enhanced grazing pressure and a more deterministic and convergent plant community assembly. We conclude that herbivores can act as strong deterministic forces during community assembly in natural systems. Our results also reveal that although large- and intermediate-sized mammal herbivores often have contrasting effects on many community and ecosystem properties, they can also synergistically homogenize plant communities.
|Early online date||2017|
|Publication status||Published - 03 Apr 2017|