Effects of grazing on C:N:P stoichiometry attenuate from soils to plants and insect herbivores in a semi-arid grassland

Abstract

Understanding the processing of limiting nutrients among organisms is an important goal of community ecology. Less known is how human disturbances may alter the stoichiometric patterns among organisms from different trophic levels within communities. Here, we investigated how livestock grazing affects the C:N:P ecological stoichiometry of soils, plants (Leymus chinensis), and grasshoppers (Euchorthippus spp.) in a semi-arid grassland in northeastern China. We found that grazing significantly enhanced soil available N and leaf N content of the dominant L. chinensis grass by 15% and 20%, respectively. Grazing also reduced (soluble) C:N of L. chinensis leaves by 22%. However, grazing did not affect total C, N, or P contents nor their ratios in Euchorthippus grasshoppers. Our results reveal that the effects of grazing disturbances on elemental composition attenuated from lower to higher trophic levels. These findings support the theory that organisms from higher trophic levels have relatively stronger stoichiometric homeostasis compared to those from lower trophic levels. Moreover, grasshopper abundance dropped by 66% in the grazed areas, and they reduced the feeding time on their host L. chinensis grass by 43%, presumably to limit the intake of excess nitrogen from host plants. The energetic costs associated with the maintenance of elemental homeostasis likely reduced grasshopper individual performance and population abundance in the grazed areas. A comprehensive investigation of stoichiometric properties of organisms across trophic levels may enable a better understanding of the nature of species interactions, and facilitate predictions of the consequences of future environmental changes for a community organization.

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Data availability

Data are available from the Dryad Digital Repository: https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.7d7wm37rq

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Acknowledgements

Two anonymous reviewers are appreciated for their insightful comments on our manuscript. This project was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 32061143027, 32001384, 31770520), the Program for Introducing Talents to Universities (B16011), the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (2412020FZ019), and the State Key Laboratory of Grassland Agro-ecosystem of Lan Zhou University (SKLGAE201904).

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Contributions

NH and XFL contributed equally to this work. ZWZ, XFL, and DLW designed experiments; NH, JYW, and HZ performed the experiments and analyzed the data; ZWZ, XFL, DF, PN, DLW, and NH drafted the manuscript; all the authors contributed to the interpretation of results and the critical revision of the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Deli Wang or Zhiwei Zhong.

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All experimental procedures were carried out in accordance with the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife (1988).

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The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Additional information

Communicated by Diethart Matthies.

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Hassan, N., Li, X., Wang, J. et al. Effects of grazing on C:N:P stoichiometry attenuate from soils to plants and insect herbivores in a semi-arid grassland. Oecologia 195, 785–795 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-021-04873-3

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Keywords

  • Stoichiometric homeostasis
  • Population dynamics
  • C:N:P
  • Plant–insect interactions