Stochastic LTRE analysis of the effects of herbivory on the population
dynamics of a perennial grassland herb
Oikos, 121:2, 211–218 (2012), unpublished
Herbivores can have strong deleterious effects on vital rates (growth, reproduction, and survival) and thus negatively impact the population dynamics of plant species. In practice, however, these effects might be strongly correlated, for example as a result of tradeoffs between vital rates. To get better insights into the effects of herbivory on the population dynamics of the long-lived grassland plant Primula veris population projection matrices were constructed from demographic data collected between 1999 and 2008 (nine annual transitions). Data were collected in two large grassland populations, each of which was subjected to two treatments (grazing by cattle versus a mowing treatment), yielding a total of 36 matrices. We applied a lower-level vital rate life table response experiment (LTRE) using the small noise approximation (SNA) of the stochastic population growth rate to disentangle the contributions of changes in mean vital rates, variability in vital rates, correlations between vital rates and vital rate elasticities to the difference in the stochastic growth rate. Stochastic growth rates (a= log λS) were significantly lower in grazed than in mown plots (a= 0.0185 and 0.1019, respectively). SNA LTRE analysis showed that contributions of mean vital rates by far made the largest contribution to the observed difference in a between grazed and control plots. In particular, changes in sexual reproduction rates made the largest contributions to lower the stochastic growth rate in grazed plots: both adult flowering probabilities and flower and seed production were importantly lower in grazed populations, but these negative effects were largely buffered by increased establishment and seedling survival rates. Among the stochastic terms of the SNA decomposition, contributions of covariance and correlations between vital rates had the largest impact, whereas contributions of elasticities were smaller. The strongest correlation driver was the association between adult survival and seedling establishment, suggesting that environmental conditions favouring adult survival also are beneficial for seedling establishment. Overall, our results show that herbivory had a strong negative effect on the long-term population growth rate of P. veris that was primarily mediated by differences in fecundity (flower and seed production) and germination.