Linking above-ground and below-ground interactions: How plant responses to foliar herbivory influence soil organisms

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Studies of the effects of above-ground herbivory on soil organisms and decomposer food webs, as well as the processes that they regulate, have largely concentrated on the effects of non-living inputs into the soil, such as dung, urine, body parts and litter. However, there is an increasing body of information which points to the importance of plant physiological responses to herbivory in regulating soil organisms and therefore, implicitly, key soil processes such as decomposition and nutrient mineralisation. In this review we identify the mechanisms by which foliar herbivory may indirectly affect the soil biota and associated below-ground processes through affecting plants, so as to better understand the nature of interactions which exist between above-ground and below-ground biota. We consider two broad pathways by which above-ground foliar herbivory may affect soil biotic communities. The first of these occurs through herbivore effects on patterns: of toot exudation and carbon allocation. These effects manifest themselves either as short-term changes in plant C allocation and root exudation or as long-term changes in root biomass and morphology. Evidence suggests that these mechanisms positively influence the size and activity of the soil biotic community and may alter the supply of nutrients in the rhizosphere for plant uptake and regrowth. The second of these involves herbivores influencing soil organisms through altering the quality of input of plant litter. Possible mechanisms by which this occurs are through herbivory enhancing nitrogen contents of root litter, through herbivory affecting production of secondary metabolites and concentrations of nutrients in foliage and thus in leaf litter and through selective foliar feeding causing shifts in plant community structure and thus the nature of litter input to the soil. While the effects of herbivory on soil organisms via plant responses may be extremely important, the directions of these effects are often unpredictable because several mechanisms are often involved and because of the inherently complex nature of soil food-web interactions; this creates obvious difficulties in developing general principles about how herbivory affects soil food-webs. Finally, it is apparent that very little is understood on how responses of soil organisms to herbivory affect those ecosystem-level processes regulated by the soil food-web (e.g. decomposition, nutrient mineralisation) and that such information is essential in developing a balanced understanding about how herbivory affects ecosystem function.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1867-1878
Number of pages11
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1998