Belowground herbivores can exert important controls on the composition of natural plant communities. Until now, relatively few studies have investigated which factors may control the abundance of belowground herbivores. In Dutch coastal foredunes, the root-feeding nematode Tylenchorhynchus ventralis is capable of reducing the performance of the dominant grass Ammophila arenaria (Marram grass). However, field surveys show that populations of this nematode usually are controlled to nondamaging densities, but the control mechanism is unknown. In the present study, we first established that T. ventralis populations are top-down controlled by soil biota. Then, selective removal of soil fauna suggested that soil microorganisms play an important role in controlling T. ventralis. This result was confirmed by an experiment where selective inoculation of microarthropods, nematodes and microbes together with T. ventralis into sterilized dune soil resulted in nematode control when microbes were present. Adding nematodes had some effect, whereas microarthropods did not have a significant effect on T. ventralis. Our results have important implications for the appreciation of herbivore controls in natural soils. Soil food web models assume that herbivorous nematodes are controlled by predaceous invertebrates, whereas many biological control studies focus on managing nematode abundance by soil microorganisms. We propose that soil microorganisms play a more important role than do carnivorous soil invertebrates in the top-down control of herbivorous ectoparasitic nematodes in natural ecosystems. This is opposite to many studies on factors controlling root-feeding insects, which are supposed to be controlled by carnivorous invertebrates, parasitoids, or entomopathogenic nematodes. Our conclusion is that the ectoparasitic nematode T. ventralis is potentially able to limit productivity of the dune grass A. arenaria but that soil organisms, mostly microorganisms, usually prevent the development of growth-reducing population densities.
Original languageEnglish
Journal publication date2007

ID: 186541