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Understanding the role of consumers in plant population dynamics is important, both conceptually and practically. Yet, while the negative effects of herbivory on plant performance have been well documented, we know much less about how individuallevel damage translates to impacts on population growth or whether spatial variation in herbivory affects patterns of plant distribution. We studied the role of insect herbivory in the dynamics and distribution of the tree cholla cactus (Opuntia imbricata), a long-lived perennial plant, across an elevational gradient in central New Mexico, USA, from low-elevation grassland (1670 m) to a grassland–mountain transition zone (1720 m) to the rocky slopes of the Los Pinos Mountains (1790 m). Tree cholla density increased significantly with elevation, while abundance of and damage by a suite of native, cactus-feeding insects decreased. We combined field experiments and demographic models to test the hypothesis that systematic spatial variation in chronic insect herbivory limits the tree cholla distribution to a subset of suitable habitat across the gradient. Our results support this hypothesis.
We found that key demographic functions (survival, growth, fecundity) and the responses of these functions to experimental reductions in insect herbivory varied across the gradient. The effects of insect exclusion on plant growth and seed production were strongest in the low-elevation grassland and decreased in magnitude with increasing elevation. We used the experimental data to parameterize integral projection models (IPM), which predict the asymptotic rate of population increase (λ). The modeling results showed that insect herbivory depressed k and that the magnitude of this effect was context-dependent. The effect of insect herbivory on population growth was strongest at low elevation (Δλlow = 0.095), intermediate at mid elevation (Δλmid = 0.046), and weakest at high elevation (Δλhigh= –0.0089). The total effect of insects on k was due to a combination of reductions in growth and in fecundity and their combination; the relative contribution of each of these effects varied spatially. Our results, generated by experimental demography across a heterogeneous landscape, provide new insights into the role of native consumers in the population dynamics and distribution of abundance of long-lived native plants.