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Research article2018Peer reviewedOpen access

Unpacking multi-trophic herbivore-grass-endophyte interactions: feedbacks across different scales in vegetation responses to Soay sheep herbivory

Vicari, Mark; Puentes, Adriana; Granath, Gustaf; Georgeff, Jennifer; Strathdee, Fiona; Bazely, Dawn R.


Grazing can induce changes in both plant productivity and nutritional quality, which may subsequently influence herbivore carrying capacity. While research on Soay sheep (Ovis aries L.) dynamics on Hirta Island in the St. Kilda archipelago has elucidated the complexity of population drivers, including parasites, the role of herbivore-generated feedbacks as an intrinsic regulating factor remains unclear. The sheep lack large predators and every 3-9years undergo population crashes (overcompensatory mortality). We investigated the effects of grazing on (1) sward productivity and (2) quality (toxicity) of the primary forage species, red fescue (Festuca rubra L.), which is highly infected by an alkaloid-synthesizing fungal endophyte. Grazing had a negative impact on both forage quantity and quality. At higher sheep densities, impacts on sward growth were magnified, resulting in a nonlinear relationship with plant productivity. Simultaneously, endophyte hyphal load (and by inference, toxicity) peaked close to the time of a crash. A greenhouse experiment showed that alkaloid concentration in F. rubra increased in response to artificial defoliation. We conclude that at high sheep densities, grazing-mediated reductions in productivity, together with sustained alkaloid production, are likely to influence sheep dynamics. Future research should consider the interactive effects of forage toxicity, quantity, and nutritional content.


Aboveground net primary production (ANPP); Epichloe festucae; Grazing optimization; Herbivore irruptions; Inducible defenses; Plant demography

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2018, Volume: 105, number: 11-12, article number: 66

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