Habitat structure mediates top-down effects of spiders and ants on herbivores

Sanders D., Nickel H., Grützner T., Platner C. 2008. Basic and Applied Ecology 9: 152-160.



Differences in structural complexity of habitats have been suggested to modify the extent of top–down forces in terrestrial food webs. In order to test this hypothesis, we manipulated densities of generalist invertebrate predators and the complexity of habitat structure in a two-factorial design. We conducted two field experiments in order to study predation effects of ants and spiders and, in particular, of the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi on herbivorous arthropods such as grasshoppers, plant- and leafhoppers in a grassland. Predator densities were manipulated by removal in habitats of higher and lower structural diversity, and the effects on herbivore densities were assessed by suction sampling. Habitat structure was changed by cutting the vegetation to half its height and removing leaf litter.

We found a significant negative effect of this assemblage of generalist predators on plant- and leafhoppers, which were 1.6 times more abundant in predator removal plots. This effect was stronger in low-structured (cut) than in uncut vegetation. Densities of the most abundant planthopper Ribautodelphax pungens (Delphacidae) were 2.2 times higher in predator removal plots. Furthermore, adult plant- and leafhoppers responded more strongly than juveniles and epigeic species more strongly than hypergeic species. The presence of predators had a positive effect on plant- and leafhopper species diversity. In a second field experiment, we tested the exclusive impact of Argiope bruennichi on its prey, and found that its effect was also significant, although weaker than the effect of the predator assemblage. This effect was stronger in grass-dominated vegetation compared to structurally more complex mixed vegetation of grasses and herbs. We conclude that habitat structure and in particular vegetation height and architectural complexity strongly modify the strength of top–down forces and indirectly affect the diversity of herbivorous arthropods.


Habitat structure mediates top-down effects of spiders and ants on herbivores