Precipitation, not CO2 enrichment, drives insect herbivore frass deposition and subsequent nutrient dynamics in a mature Eucalyptus woodland


Background and aims

Herbivorous insects are important nutrient cyclers that produce nutrient-rich frass. The impact of elevated atmospheric [CO2] on insect-mediated nutrient cycling, and its potential interaction with precipitation and temperature, is poorly understood and rarely quantified. We tested these climatic effects on frass deposition in a nutrient-limited mature woodland.


Frass deposition by leaf-chewing insects and its chemical composition was quantified monthly over the first 2 years at the Eucalyptus free-air CO2 enrichment experiment and contrasted with leaf nitrogen concentration, rainfall and temperature.


Leaf-chewing insects produced yearly between 160 and 270 kg ha−1 of frass depositing 2 to 4 kg ha−1 of nitrogen. Frass quantity and quality were influenced by rainfall and average maximum temperatures. In contrast, elevated CO2 did not impact nitrogen concentrations in fully expanded leaves and frass deposition to the woodland floor.


Two years of elevated CO2 did not alter nutrient transfer by leaf-chewing insects. This may be due to the low nutrient status of this ecosystem, duration of CO2 fumigation or climatic conditions. However, rainfall co-occurring with seasonally higher temperatures exerted strong effects on nutrient cycling, potentially through shifts in leaf phenology with consequences for insect population dynamics and insect-mediated nutrient transfer.

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We thank Goran Lopaticki, David Ellsworth and Jeff Powell for their help in emptying baskets. We also thank Jeff Powell, David Ellsworth, Jeffrey Walck and three reviewers for comments. EucFACE is supported by the Australian Commonwealth Government in collaboration with Western Sydney University. EucFACE was built as an initiative of the Australian Government as part of the Nation-building Economic Stimulus Package. Furthermore, this research was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award to A.N.G. and Australian Research Council Discovery Projects granted to M.R. (DP1095972) and David Ellsworth (DP110105102).

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Correspondence to Andrew N. Gherlenda or Markus Riegler.

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Responsible Editor: Jeffrey Walck.

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Gherlenda, A.N., Crous, K.Y., Moore, B.D. et al. Precipitation, not CO2 enrichment, drives insect herbivore frass deposition and subsequent nutrient dynamics in a mature Eucalyptus woodland. Plant Soil 399, 29–39 (2016) doi:10.1007/s11104-015-2683-2

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  • Climate change
  • Eucalypt
  • EucFACE
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Insects