Relative importance of environmental stress and herbivory in reducing litter fall in a semiarid woodland

Thomas D. Schuster, Neil S. Cobb, Thomas G. Whitham, Stephen C. Hart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


We examined the impact of soil stress (low water and nutrient availabilities) and two keystone insect herbivores on pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) needle litterfall. We compared trees growing on two distinct soil types: volcanic cinders, which exhibit pronounced water and nutrient limitation, and sandy-loam soils, which have higher water-storage capacity and nutrient availability. Using two long-term herbivore removal experiments (15 and 18 years, respectively), we also examined the effects of the pinyon needle scale (Matsucoccus acalyptus, which attacks juvenile trees) and the stem-boring moth (Dioryctria albovittella, which attacks mature trees) on pinyon litterfall. These herbivores reach high densities on cinder soils but are absent or occur at much lower levels on sandy-loam soils. Four years of litterfall measurements showed four major patterns. First, independent of herbivory, needle litterfall was 20% lower under trees on high-stress cinder soils than on sandy-loam soils. Second, in agreement with the negative impact of scales on tree growth (that is, a 30% decline in stem growth), trees with scale infestations had 25% lower litterfall rates than trees resistant to scale; however, 15 years of scale-insect removal did not significantly increase needle litterfall. This implies possible intrinsic differences in litter production between scale-resistant and scale-susceptible trees. Third, in contrast with significant negative effects of moth herbivory on tree growth (that is, a 27% decline in stem growth), moth herbivory had no effect on needle litterfall. This, along with increased stem density in moth-susceptible trees, may be evidence of compensatory production. Fourth, there were strong year by soil type and year by scale herbivory interactions, such that in some years the effect on litterfall can be obscured or reversed by some other factor. In summary, soil stress has a strong and predictable effect on needle litterfall, whereas the relationship between insect herbivory and needle litterfall is weaker and depends on the individual herbivore. These effects, however, are mediated by other environmental factors that have considerable annual variation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)62-72
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2005


  • Compensation
  • Dioryctria albovittella
  • Herbivory
  • Litterfall
  • Matsucoccus acalyptus
  • Pinus edulis
  • Pinyon pine
  • Productivity
  • Soil stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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