Negative Effects of Vertebrate Herbivores on Invertebrates in a Coastal Dune Community

Although competition has been a major focus in ecology for the past century, most empirical and theoretical studies in this area have emphasized interactions between closely related species. However, there is growing evidence that negative interactions among distantly related taxa also occur and may be far more important than previously thought. In this study, we took advantage of an 11-year-old replicated vertebrate-exclosure experiment in a coastal dune community in northern California, USA, to examine the effects of the two most common vertebrate herbivores ( jackrabbits and black-tailed deer) on the abundance of the three most visible invertebrate herbivores (two snail, a moth, and a grasshopper species). Our results indicate that four of the six possible pairwise interactions were significantly negative for the invertebrates. Jackrabbits reduced the abundances of snails by 44–75%, tiger moth caterpillars by 36%, and grasshoppers by 62%. Deer reduced the abundances of snails by 32%, increased the abundances of caterpillars by 31%, and had no measurable effect on grasshopper abundance. Our data also revealed that jackrabbits significantly decreased the volume of forbs and common shrubs and the flowering by grasses in our study plots. We were unable to detect an effect of deer on these measures of vegetation. These results suggest that by changing vegetation, jackrabbits may reduce invertebrate populations that are limited by food, protective structures, or microclimate provided by plants. Of these three mechanisms, only shade was strongly supported as limiting snail numbers in smaller-scale manipulations. In most systems, as in this one, the number of pairs of distantly related herbivores far exceeds the number of pairs of congeners. Since interactions among distantly related herbivores may be common in many cases, these interactions are likely to be important and should receive far more attention from ecologists.