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  Proceedings.Biological Sciences/The Royal Society
Vol. 276, No: 1656, 2009, Pages: 487 - 97


When microbes and consumers determine the limiting nutrient of autotrophs: a theoretical analysis

Cherif M, Loreau M

Laboratoire d'Ecologie, BIOEMCO UMR 7618, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 46 rue d'Ulm, 75230 Paris Cedex 05, France.


Ecological stoichiometry postulates that differential nutrient recycling of elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus by consumers can shift the element that limits plant growth. However, this hypothesis has so far considered the effect of consumers, mostly herbivores, out of their food-web context. Microbial decomposers are important components of food webs, and might prove as important as consumers in changing the availability of elements for plants. In this theoretical study, we investigate how decomposers determine the nutrient that limits plants, both by feeding on nutrients and organic carbon released by plants and consumers, and by being fed upon by omnivorous consumers. We show that decomposers can greatly alter the relative availability of nutrients for plants. The type of limiting nutrient promoted by decomposers depends on their own elemental composition and, when applicable, on their ingestion by consumers. Our results highlight the limitations of previous stoichiometric theories of plant nutrient limitation control, which often ignored trophic levels other than plants and herbivores. They also suggest that detrital chains play an important role in determining plant nutrient limitation in many ecosystems.

Keywords:Ecological stoichiometry postulates,consumers, mostly herbivores, out of their food-web context,plant nutrient limitation control.


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