Abiotic soil properties, plant community composition, and herbivory all have been reported as important factors influencing the composition of soil communities. However, most studies thus far have considered these factors in isolation, whereas they strongly interact in the field. Here, we study how grazing by vertebrate herbivores influences the soil nematode community composition of a floodplain grassland while we account for effects of grazing on plant community composition and abiotic soil properties. Nematodes are the most ubiquitous invertebrates in the soil. They include a variety of feeding types, ranging from microbial feeders to herbivores and carnivores, and they perform key functions in soil food webs.
Our hypothesis was that grazing affects nematode community structure and composition through altering plant community structure and composition. Alternatively, we tested whether the effects of grazing may, directly or indirectly, run via changes in soil abiotic properties. We used a long-term field experiment containing plots with and without vertebrate grazers (cattle and rabbits). We compared plant and nematode community structure and composition, as well as a number of key soil abiotic properties, and we applied structural equation modeling to investigate four possible pathways by which grazing may change nematode community composition.
Aboveground grazing increased plant species richness and reduced both plant and nematode community heterogeneity. There was a positive relationship between plant and nematode diversity indices. Grazing decreased the number of bacterial-feeding nematodes, indicating that in these grasslands, top-down control of plant production by grazing leads to bottom-up control in the basal part of the bacterial channel of the soil food web.
According to the structural equation model, grazing had a strong effect on soil abiotic properties and plant community composition, whereas plant community composition was the main determinant of nematode community composition. Other pathways, which assumed that grazing influenced nematode community composition by inducing changes in soil abiotic properties, did not significantly explain variation in nematode community composition.
We conclude that grazing-induced changes in nematode community composition mainly operated via changes in plant community composition. Influences of vertebrate grazers on soil nematodes through modification of abiotic soil properties were of less importance.