Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



Ecology, 91(10), 2010, pp. 3081–3093


Copyright 2010 by the Ecological Society of America


Understanding spatial and temporal variation in factors influencing plant regeneration is critical to predicting plant population growth. We experimentally evaluated seed limitation, insect herbivory, and their interaction in the regeneration and density of tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) across a topographic ecosystem productivity gradient in tallgrass prairie over two years. On ridges and in valleys, we used a factorial experiment manipulating seed availability and insect herbivory to quantify effects of: seed input on seedling density, insect herbivory on juvenile density, and cumulative impacts of both seed input and herbivory on reproductive adult density. Seed addition increased seedling densities at three of five sites in 2006 and all five sites in 2007. Insect herbivory reduced seedling survival across all sites in both years, as well as rosette survival from the previous year’s seedlings. In both years, insecticide treatment of seed addition plots led to greater adult tall thistle densities in the following year, reflecting the increase in juvenile thistle densities in the experimental year. Seedling survival was not density dependent. Our analytical projection model predicts a significant long-term increase in adult densities from seed input, with a greater increase under experimentally reduced insect herbivory. While plant community biomass and water stress varied significantly between ridges and valleys, the effects of seed addition and insect herbivory did not vary with gradient position. These results support conceptual models that predict seedling and adult densities of short-lived monocarpic perennial plants should be seed limited. Further, the experiment demonstrates that even at high juvenile plant densities, at which density dependence potentially could have overridden herbivore effects on plant survival, insect herbivory strongly affected juvenile thistle performance and adult densities of this native prairie species.