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Research article2009Peer reviewedOpen access

Plant defences to no avail? Responses of plants of varying edibility to food web manipulations in a low arctic scrubland

Dahlgren, Jonas; Oksanen, Lauri; Oksanen, Tarja; Olofsson, Johan; Hambäck, Peter A; Lindgren, Åsa


Background: According to the Green World Hypothesis of Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin, all plants are edible for some herbivores. Hence, the copious abundance of plant biomass, typical for terrestrial ecosystems, depends on the collective regulatory action of predators on the herbivore guild. According to the counterarguments of Polis and Strong, the defensive traits of terrestrial plants attenuate terrestrial trophic cascades to species-specific trickles, so elimination of predators might lead to increased abundance of inedible plants but will not influence community-level plant biomass. Question: Does the elimination of predators from a low arctic scrubland, with high-quality forage plants and poorly edible evergreen ericoids, lead to a reduction of community-level plant biomass or to an increased abundance of well-defended evergreen ericoids? Methods: In 1991, we introduced grey-sided voles (Myodes rufocanus) to islands, initially harbouring dense scrubland vegetation, and established permanent plots there. In 2000, we transplanted vegetation blocks from a large three-trophic-level island with voles and predators, to two-trophic-level islands with introduced voles but without resident predators, and also to vole-free one-trophic-level islands, and back to the three-trophic-level island. Vole densities were monitored by semi-annual live trapping. Vegetation was monitored by the point-frequency method. Results: In the absence of predators, vole densities increased 3.7-fold and the communitylevel plant biomass was decimated. The least palatable plant group, evergreen ericoids, suffered especially heavily, whereas palatable herbaceous plants increased in abundance. However, all three functional plant groups responded positively to the elimination of grey-sided voles. Conclusions: Our results corroborate the Green World Hypothesis, indicating that in the absence of predators, plant defences do not prevent runaway consumption of the vegetation.The fate of plants in predator-free systems with browsing vertebrates depends primarily on the accessibility of each plant during the limiting season. Evergreen ericoids then form the most sensitive functional group. Methods: In 2000, we constructed vole-proof exclosures on low arctic islands where vegetation had, since 1991, been heavily impacted by grey-sided voles. In 2000 and 2003, we surveyed the vegetation of the exclosures, of unfenced plots on the same islands, and of control plots on a vole-free island. We used the point-frequency method for vegetation surveys. Results: In the exclosures, the biomasses of most plant species increased, by and large, at the same pace. The two woody species, which increased most rapidly, were the maximally palatable bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and the phenolics-laden, maximally unpalatable northern crowberry (Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaprhoditum). The recovery rates of these species were similar. Conclusions: The high concentrations of phenolics typical for evergreen arctic dwarf shrubs do not carry any obvious cost in the form of reduced capacity for compensatory growth. The principle of trade-offs does not help to explain the variation in plant palatability.


arctic; food web dynamics; herbivory; Myodes rufocanus; plant defences; tolerance; trade-offs

Published in

Evolutionary Ecology Research
2009, Volume: 11, number: 8, pages: 1189-1203

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Environmental Sciences related to Agriculture and Land-use

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