Herbivore effects on plant and nitrogen dynamics in oak savanna

Mark E. Ritchik, David Tilman, Johannes M.H. Knops

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

427 Scopus citations


Herbivores can often control plant dynamics by mediating positive feedbacks in plant species' influence on nutrient cycling. In a 7-yr field experiment in a nitrogen-limited Minnesota oak savanna, we tested whether herbivores accelerated or decelerated nitrogen (N) cycling through their effects on plants. We measured effects of excluding insect (primarily Orthoptera and Homoptera) and mammalian herbivores (primarily white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus) on above- and belowground plant biomass, plant species composition, plant tissue nitrogen concentration, available soil N and light, and total N and carbon (C) in different pools (soil, roots, litter, etc.). Herbivore exclusion strongly increased cover and biomass of the legume Lathyrus venosus and a few species of woody plants. These effects were associated with greater aboveground standing crop, reduced belowground standing crop, and reduced light penetration to the ground surface. Herbivore exclusion also modified N cycling through greater N content of live, aboveground plant tissue early in the growing season and of litter and belowground tissue late in the growing season. Herbivore exclusion also increased soil nitrate and total available N concentrations but did not alter total soil or plant N. Our results support the hypothesis that herbivores indirectly decelerate N cycling by decreasing the abundance of plant species with nitrogen-rich tissues. However, other factors, such as disturbance from fire, may mediate herbivore effects on long-term changes in N and C pools. Herbivores may therefore indirectly control productivity, N cycling, and succession by consuming nitrogen-fixing and woody plants that have strong effects on plant resources (e.g., nitrogen and light).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)165-177
Number of pages13
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes


  • Herbivores
  • Legumes
  • Nitrogen
  • Plants
  • Positive feedback
  • Savanna

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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