Global signal of top-down control of terrestrial plant communities by herbivores
The theory of “top-down” ecological regulation predicts that herbivory suppresses plant abundance, biomass, and survival but increases diversity through the disproportionate consumption of dominant species, which inhibits competitive exclusion. To date, these outcomes have been clear in aquatic ecosystems but not on land. We explicate this discrepancy using a meta-analysis of experimental results from 123 native animal exclusions in natural terrestrial ecosystems (623 pairwise comparisons). Consistent with top-down predictions, we found that herbivores significantly reduced plant abundance, biomass, survival, and reproduction (all P < 0.01) and increased species evenness but not richness (P = 0.06 and P = 0.59, respectively). However, when examining patterns in the strength of top-down effects, with few exceptions, we were unable to detect significantly different effect sizes among biomes, based on local site characteristics (climate or productivity) or study characteristics (study duration or exclosure size). The positive effects on diversity were only significant in studies excluding large animals or located in temperate grasslands. The results demonstrate that top-down regulation by herbivores is a pervasive process shaping terrestrial plant communities at the global scale, but its strength is highly site specific and not predicted by basic site conditions. We suggest that including herbivore densities as a covariate in future exclosure studies will facilitate the discovery of unresolved macroecology trends in the strength of herbivore–plant interactions.