The ramifying effects of top predators on food webs traditionally have been studied within the framework of trophic cascades. Trophic cascades are compelling because they embody powerful indirect effects of predators on primary production. Although less studied, indirect effects of predators may occur via routes that are not exclusively trophic. We quantified how the introduction of foxes onto the Aleutian Islands transformed plant communities by reducing abundant seabird populations, thereby disrupting nutrient subsidies vectored by seabirds from sea to land. We compared soil and plant fertility, plant biomass and community composition, and stable isotopes of nitrogen in soil, plants, and other organisms on nine fox-infested and nine historically fox-free islands across the Aleutians. Additionally, we experimentally augmented nutrients on a fox-infested island to test whether differences in plant productivity and composition between fox-infested and fox-free islands could have arisen from differences in nutrient inputs between island types. Islands with historical fox infestations had soils low in phosphorus and nitrogen and plants low in tissue nitrogen. Soils, plants, slugs, flies, spiders, and bird droppings on these islands had low d15N values indicating that these organisms obtained nitrogen from internally derived sources. In contrast, soils, plants, and higher trophic level organisms on fox-free islands had elevated d15N signatures indicating that they utilized nutrients derived from the marine environment. Furthermore, soil phosphorus (but not nitrogen) and plant tissue nitrogen were higher on fox-free than fox-infested islands. Nutrient subsidized fox-free islands supported lush, high biomass plant communities dominated by graminoids. Fox-infested islands were less graminoid dominated and had higher cover and biomass of low-lying forbs and dwarf shrubs. While d15N profiles of soils and plants and graminoid biomass varied with island size and distance from shore, after accounting for these effects differences between fox-infested and fox-free islands still existed. Fertilization over four years caused a 24-fold increase in graminoid biomass and a shift toward a more graminoid dominated plant community typical of fox-free islands. These results indicate that apex predators can influence plant productivity and composition through complex interaction web pathways involving both top-down forcing and bottom-up nutrient exchanges across systems. ?? 2006 by the Ecological Society of America.
Additional publication details
An introduced predator alters Aleutian Island plant communities by thwarting nutrient subsidies