Herbivore phenology can predict response to changes in plant quality by livestock grazing
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Livestock grazing can have a strong impact on herbivore abundance, distribution and community. However, not all species of herbivores respond the same way to livestock grazing, and we still have a poor understanding of the underlying mechanisms driving these differential responses. Here, we investigate the effect of light intensity cattle grazing on the abundance of two grasshoppers (Euchorthippus cheui and E. unicolor) that co-occur in the same grasslands and feed on the same food plant (the dominant grass Leymus chinensis). The two grasshopper species differ in phenology so that their peak abundances are separated into early- and late-growing seasons. We used an exclosure experiment to monitor grasshopper abundance and food quality in the field under grazed and ungrazed conditions, and performed feeding trials to examine grasshopper preference for grazed or ungrazed food plants in the laboratory. We found that the nitrogen content of L. chinensis leaves continuously declined in the ungrazed areas, but was significantly enhanced by cattle grazing over the growing season. Cattle grazing facilitated the early-season grasshopper E. cheui, whereas it suppressed the late-season grasshopper E. unicolor. Moreover, feeding trials showed that E. cheui preferred L. chinensis from grazed plots, while E. unicolor preferred the leaves from ungrazed plots. We conclude that livestock grazing has opposite effects on the two grasshopper species, and that these effects may be driven by grazing-induced changes in plant nutrient content and the unique nutritional niches of the grasshoppers. These results suggest that insects that belong to the same guild can have opposite nutrient requirements, related to their distinct phenologies, and that this can ultimately affect their response to cattle grazing. Our results show that phenology may link insect physiological needs to local resource availabilities, and should be given more attention in future work on interactions between large herbivores and insects.