Herbivory and competition slow down invasion of a tall grass along a productivity gradient

D.P.J. Kuijper, D.J. Nijhoff, J.P. Bakker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


Competition models including competition for light predict that small plant species preferred by herbivores will be outshaded by taller unpreferred plant species with increasing productivity. When the tall plant species is little grazed by the herbivores, it can easily invade and dominate short vegetation. The tall-growing grass Elymus athericus dominates the highly productive stages of a salt-marsh succession in Schiermonnikoog and is not preferred by the herbivores which occur there, hares and geese. We studied how interspecific competition and herbivory affected performance during early establishment of this species with increasing productivity. Seedlings were planted in the field in a full factorial design, manipulating both interspecific competition and herbivory. The experiment was replicated along a natural productivity gradient. Competition reduced aboveground biomass production and decreased the number of ramets that were produced but did not affect survival of seedlings. The negative effects of competition on seedling performance increased with increasing productivity. In contrast to our expectations, herbivory strongly reduced seedling survival, especially at the unproductive sites and had only small effects on seedling growth. The present study shows that unpreferred tall-growing species cannot easily invade vegetation composed of short preferred species. Grazing by (intermediate-sized) herbivores can prevent establishment at unproductive sites, and increased competition can prevent a rapid invasion of highly productive sites. Herbivores can have a long-lasting impact on vegetation succession by preventing the establishment of tall-growing species, such as E. athericus, in a window of opportunity at young unproductive successional stages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)452-459
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2004


  • salt-marsh succession
  • geese branta-bernicla
  • seedling establishment
  • vegetation succession
  • communities
  • leucopsis
  • abundance
  • patterns
  • growth
  • plants

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