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Trophic Cascades in Terrestrial Systems: A Review of the Effects of Carnivore Removals on Plants

1. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511;2. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511

We present a quantitative synthesis of trophic cascades in terrestrial systems using data from 41 studies, reporting 60 independent tests. The studies covered a wide range of taxa in various terrestrial systems with varying degrees of species diversity. We quantified the average magnitude of direct effects of carnivores on herbivore prey and indirect effects of carnivores on plants. We examined how the effect magnitudes varied with type of carnivores in the study system, food web diversity, and experimental protocol. A metaanalysis of the data revealed that trophic cascades were common among the studies. Exceptions to this general trend did arise. In some cases, trophic cascades were expected not to occur, and they did not. In other cases, the direct effects of carnivores on herbivores were stronger than the indirect effects of carnivores on plants, indicating that top‐down effects attenuated. Top‐down effects usually attenuated whenever plants contained antiherbivore defenses or when herbivore species diversity was high. Conclusions about the strength of top‐down effects of carnivores varied with the type of carnivore and with the plant‐response variable measured. Vertebrate carnivores generally had stronger effects than invertebrate carnivores. Carnivores, in general, had stronger effects when the response was measured as plant damage rather than as plant biomass or plant reproductive output. We caution, therefore, that conclusions about the strength of top‐down effects could be an artifact of the plant‐response variable measured. We also found that mesocosm experiments generally had weaker effect magnitudes than open‐plot field experiments or observational experiments. Trophic cascades in terrestrial systems, although not a universal phenomenon, are a consistent response throughout the published studies reviewed here. Our analysis thus suggests that they occur more frequently in terrestrial systems than currently believed. Moreover, the mechanisms and strengths of top‐down effects of carnivores are equivalent to those found in other types of systems (e.g., aquatic environments).