, Volume 186, Issue 1, pp 235–246 | Cite as

Plant–soil feedback effects can be masked by aboveground herbivory under natural field conditions

  • Johannes HeinzeEmail author
  • Jasmin Joshi
Community ecology – original research


For plants, herbivory and interactions with their surrounding soil ecosystem are crucial factors influencing individual performance and plant-community composition. Until now, research has mostly focused on individual effects of herbivory or plant–soil feedbacks (PSFs) on plant growth and community composition, but few studies have explicitly investigated herbivory in the context of PSFs. These few studies, however, were performed under greenhouse conditions even though PSFs and herbivory may differ between greenhouse and field conditions. Therefore, we performed a field experiment in a grassland, testing the growth responses of three grass species that consistently differ in local abundance, on soils previously conditioned by these species. We tested these PSF effects for the three species both in the presence and in the absence of aboveground herbivores. Without herbivores, the two subdominant species suffered from negative PSF effects. However, in the presence of herbivores and on heterospecific soils, the same two species experienced a significant loss of shoot biomass, whereas, in contrast, enhanced root growth was observed on conspecific soils, resulting in overall neutral PSF effects. The dominant species was not damaged by herbivores and showed overall neutral PSF effects in the field with and without herbivores. Our study provides empirical evidence that negative PSF effects that exist under natural field conditions in grasslands can be overwhelmed by aboveground herbivory. Hence, potential PSF effects might not be detected in the field, because other abiotic and biotic interactions such as aboveground herbivory have stronger effects on plant performance and might therefore mask or override these PSF effects.


Herbivores Field experiment Plant-community composition Plant diversity Plant–soil feedback 



We thank Frank Warschau and Mario Sitte for help in the field, Gabriele Gehrmann for help with the soil analysis, Ronald Wille and Stefan Saumweber for technical support for the measurements of abiotic conditions and the Botanical Garden Potsdam for their cooperation.

Author contribution statement

JH designed the study, performed the experiment and analyzed the data. JH and JJ wrote the manuscript.

Supplementary material

442_2017_3997_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (558 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 557 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biodiversity Research/Systematic Botany, Institute of Biochemistry and BiologyUniversity of PotsdamPotsdamGermany
  2. 2.Berlin-Brandenburg Institute of Advanced Biodiversity Research (BBIB)BerlinGermany

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