Trait similarity patterns within grass and grasshopper communities: Multitrophic community assembly at work

F. van der Plas*, T.M. Anderson, H. Olff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Trait-based community assembly theory suggests that trait variation among cooccurring species is shaped by two main processes: abiotic filtering, important in stressful environments and promoting similarity, and competition, more important in productive environments and promoting dissimilarity. Previous studies have indeed found trait similarity to decline along productivity gradients. However, these studies have always been done on single trophic levels. Here, we investigated how interactions between trophic levels affect trait similarity patterns along environmental gradients. We propose three hypotheses for the main drivers of trait similarity patterns of plants and herbivores along environmental gradients: (1) environmental control of both, (2) bottom-up control of herbivore trait variation, and (3) topdown control of grass trait variation. To test this, we collected data on the community composition and trait variation of grasses (41 species) and grasshoppers (53 species) in 50 plots in a South African savanna. Structural equation models were used to investigate how the range and spacing of within-community functional trait values of both grasses and their insect herbivores (grasshoppers; Acrididae) respond to (1) rainfall and fire frequency gradients and (2) the trait similarity patterns of the other trophic level. The analyses revealed that traits of co-occurring grasses became more similar toward lower rainfall and higher fire frequency (environmental control), while showing little evidence for top-down control. Grasshopper trait range patterns, on the other hand, were mostly directly driven by vegetation structure and grass trait range patterns (bottom-up control), while environmental factors had mostly indirect effects via plant traits. Our study shows the potential to expand trait-based community assembly theory to include trophic interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)836-846
Number of pages11
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Abiotic filtering
  • Bottom-up control
  • Community assembly
  • Competition
  • Functional diversity
  • Grasses
  • Grasshoppers
  • Herbivores
  • Savannas
  • Top-down control
  • Trait dispersion
  • Trophic interactions


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