Nutrient dilution and climate cycles underlie declines in a dominant insect herbivore

TitleNutrient dilution and climate cycles underlie declines in a dominant insect herbivore
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsWelti, EL, Roeder, KA, de Beurs, KM, Joern, A, Kaspari, M
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Accession NumberKNZ002005

Evidence for global insect declines mounts, increasing our need to understand underlying mechanisms. We test the nutrient dilution (ND) hypothesis—the decreasing concentration of essential dietary minerals with increasing plant productivity—that particularly targets insect herbivores. Nutrient dilution can result from increased plant biomass due to climate or CO2 enrichment. Additionally, when considering long-term trends driven by climate, one must account for large-scale oscillations including El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). We combine long-term datasets of grasshopper abundance, climate, plant biomass, and end-of-season foliar elemental content to examine potential drivers of abundance cycles and trends of this dominant herbivore. Annual grasshopper abundances in 16- and 22-y time series from a Kansas prairie revealed both 5-y cycles and declines of 2.1–2.7%/y. Climate cycle indices of spring ENSO, summer NAO, and winter or spring PDO accounted for 40–54% of the variation in grasshopper abundance, mediated by effects of weather and host plants. Consistent with ND, grass biomass doubled and foliar concentrations of N, P, K, and Na—nutrients which limit grasshopper abundance—declined over the same period. The decline in plant nutrients accounted for 25% of the variation in grasshopper abundance over two decades. Thus a warming, wetter, more CO2-enriched world will likely contribute to declines in insect herbivores by depleting nutrients from their already nutrient-poor diet. Unlike other potential drivers of insect declines—habitat loss, light and chemical pollution—ND may be widespread in remaining natural areas.