Linking predation risk, herbivore physiological stress and microbial decomposition of plant litter

Oswald J. Schmitz, Mark A. Bradford, Michael S. Strickland, Dror Hawlena

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The quantity and quality of detritus entering the soil determines the rate of decomposition by microbial communities as well as recycle rates of nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) sequestration. Plant litter comprises the majority of detritus, and so it is assumed that decomposition is only marginally influenced by biomass inputs from animals such as herbivores and carnivores. However, carnivores may influence microbial decomposition of plant litter via a chain of interactions in which predation risk alters the physiology of their herbivore prey that in turn alters soil microbial functioning when the herbivore carcasses are decomposed. A physiological stress response by herbivores to the risk of predation can change the C:N elemental composition of herbivore biomass because stress from predation risk increases herbivore basal energy demands that in nutrient-limited systems forces herbivores to shift their consumption from N-rich resources to support growth and reproduction to C-rich carbohydrate resources to support heightened metabolism. Herbivores have limited ability to store excess nutrients, so stressed herbivores excrete N as they increase carbohydrate-C consumption. Ultimately, prey stressed by predation risk increase their body C:N ratio, making them poorer quality resources for the soil microbial pool likely due to lower availability of labile N for microbial enzyme production. Thus, decomposition of carcasses of stressed herbivores has a priming effect on the functioning of microbial communities that decreases subsequent ability to of microbes to decompose plant litter. We present the methodology to evaluate linkages between predation risk and litter decomposition by soil microbes. We describe how to: induce stress in herbivores from predation risk; measure those stress responses, and measure the consequences on microbial decomposition. We use insights from a model grassland ecosystem comprising the hunting spider predator (Pisuarina mira), a dominant grasshopper herbivore (Melanoplus femurrubrum),and a variety of grass and forb plants.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)e50061
JournalJournal of Visualized Experiments
Issue number73
StatePublished - 2013


  • Biological Phenomena
  • Carbon Sequestration
  • Chemical Phenomena
  • Earth Resources and Remote Sensing
  • Ecological Stoichiometry
  • Entomology
  • Environmental Sciences
  • Grasshoper
  • Investigative Techniques
  • Issue 73
  • Life Sciences (General)
  • Litter Decomposition
  • Metabolic Phenomena
  • Microbiological Phenomena
  • Microbiology
  • Model system
  • Organisms
  • Physiological Stress and Ecosystem Function
  • Plant Biology
  • Predation Risk
  • Respiration
  • Soil Respiration
  • Soil Science
  • Spider


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