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Complex responses to invasive grass litter by ground arthropods in a Mediterranean scrub ecosystem


Plant invasions have tremendous potential to alter food webs by changing basal resources. Recent studies document how plant invasions may contribute to increased arthropod abundances in detritus-based food webs. An obvious mechanism for this phenomenon—a bottom-up effect resulting from elevated levels of detritus from the invasive plant litter—has not been explicitly studied. We examined the effects of an annual grass invasion on ground arthropod assemblages in the coastal sage scrub (CSS) of southern California. Bottom-up food web theory predicts that the addition of detritus would increase generalist-feeding arthropods at all trophic levels; accordingly, we expected increases in fungi, Collembola, and common predators such as mites and spiders. For the common ant taxa, habitat alteration may also be important for predicting responses. Thus we expected that Forelius mccooki and Pheidole vistana, the most common ant species, would decline because of changes in soil temperature (F. mccooki) and habitat structure (P. vistana) associated with litter. We studied trends observationally and conducted a 3-year experiment in which we manipulated litter quantity. In contrast to other published studies, most detritus-based arthropod taxa declined in areas of high grass invasion, and, within trophic levels, responses often varied idiosyncratically. For the two most common taxa, a native ant (F. mccooki), and predatory mites in the Anystidae, we experimentally linked declines in abundance to increased levels of invasive grass litter. Such declines, especially those exhibited by the most common ant taxa, could have cascading effects on the CSS ecosystem, where ants are numerically dominant and thus may have broad influences on food web and ecosystem properties. Our results highlight that accurately predicting arthropod responses to invasive plant litter requires careful consideration of the structural and food resources provided by detritus to each particular food web.

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