Large mammalian herbivores affect arthropod food webs via changes in vegetation characteristics and microclimate

Yu Zhu* (Corresponding author), G. F. (Ciska) Veen, Robin Heinen, Deli Wang, Ming Jiang* (Corresponding author), Hui Jin, Elisabeth S. Bakker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
37 Downloads (Pure)


Large mammalian herbivores are vital components of terrestrial ecosystems, influencing the plants they feed on, but also serving as ecosystem engineers that impact the occurrence and survival of many other organisms. Arthropods are the most abundant and diverse animal group on earth, filling all trophic levels in food webs and facilitating essential ecosystem services. However, the impacts of large herbivores on arthropod communities and the mechanisms via which these impacts are mediated are not fully understood.
Here, we experimentally separated the mechanistic pathways whereby large herbivores affect arthropod food webs using a 24-year manipulative multi-site field experiment in the Netherlands. We analysed the abundance, biomass and community composition of arthropods in the plant canopy and on the soil surface, both in grazed sites or sites where large herbivores were excluded.
We found that the presence of large herbivores resulted in considerable differences in vegetation properties and microclimate which influenced the abundance and biomass of arthropods to varying trophic levels. Large herbivore grazing enhanced the overall abundance and biomass of arthropod herbivores, pollinators, omnivores and soil-dwelling predators, but reduced that of detritivores, scavengers, parasitoids and canopy predators. Structural equation models revealed that different trophic groups are affected by grazing via different pathways. Specially, large herbivores facilitated herbivores via increasing plant quality and enhanced ground-dwelling predators via increasing plant diversity. In contrast, plant-dwelling predators were suppressed via decreased plant quantity, and parasitoids were mainly affected by changes in microclimate conditions.
Synthesis. Our results show that large mammalian herbivores play a significant role in shaping grassland arthropod food webs, and that these impacts were independently mediated by multiple aspects of vegetation properties, that is, physical structure, plant diversity, standing crop biomass and leaf nutrient content. Arthropods of different trophic groups responded differently to the large herbivores, and these functional group-specific responses in turn may have strong cascading effects on numerous ecosystem services.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2077-2089
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2023


  • grazing
  • herbivory
  • insects
  • invertebrates
  • nature conservation
  • plant–animal interactions
  • trophic rewilding
  • ungulates


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