University of Oulu

Eskelinen, A., Harpole, W.S., Jessen, MT. et al. Light competition drives herbivore and nutrient effects on plant diversity. Nature 611, 301–305 (2022).

Light competition drives herbivore and nutrient effects on plant diversity

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Author: Eskelinen, Anu1,2,3,4; Harpole, W. Stanley1,2,5; Jessen, Maria-Theresa1,2,6;
Organizations: 1Department of Physiological Diversity, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research–UFZ, Leipzig, Germany
2German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany
3Department of Ecology and Genetics, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
4Present address: Department of Ecology and Genetics, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
5Institute of Biology, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Halle, Germany
6Department of Community Ecology, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research–UFZ, Halle, Germany
7Ecology and Biodiversity Group, Department of Biology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 9.3 MB)
Persistent link:
Language: English
Published: Springer Nature, 2022
Publish Date: 2023-05-12


Enrichment of nutrients and loss of herbivores are assumed to cause a loss of plant diversity in grassland ecosystems because they increase plant cover, which leads to a decrease of light in the understory1–3. Empirical tests of the role of competition for light in natural systems are based on indirect evidence, and have been a topic of debate for the last 40 years. Here we show that experimentally restoring light to understory plants in a natural grassland mitigates the loss of plant diversity that is caused by either nutrient enrichment or the absence of mammalian herbivores. The initial effect of light addition on restoring diversity under fertilization was transitory and outweighed by the greater effect of herbivory on light levels, indicating that herbivory is a major factor that controls diversity, partly through light. Our results provide direct experimental evidence, in a natural system, that competition for light is a key mechanism that contributes to the loss of biodiversity after cessation of mammalian herbivory. Our findings also show that the effects of herbivores can outpace the effects of fertilization on competition for light. Management practices that target maintaining grazing by native or domestic herbivores could therefore have applications in protecting biodiversity in grassland ecosystems, because they alleviate competition for light in the understory.

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Series: Nature
ISSN: 0028-0836
ISSN-E: 1476-4687
ISSN-L: 0028-0836
Volume: 611
Issue: 7935
Pages: 301 - 305
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05383-9
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 1181 Ecology, evolutionary biology
Funding: A.E. was supported by the Academy of Finland project no. 297191. M.-T.J .was supported by the iDiv Flexpool program grant no. 34600565-11.
Academy of Finland Grant Number: 297191
Detailed Information: 297191 (Academy of Finland Funding decision)
Dataset Reference: The datasets generated and analysed during this study are available in the Dryad repository: The R code and scripts used in this study are available in the Dryad repository:
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