The effects of soil eutrophication propagate to higher trophic levels

  • Articles in SCI Journals
  • Mar, 2017

Pöyry, J., Carvalheiro, L.G., Heikkinen, R.K., Kühn, I., Kuussaari, M., Schweiger, O., Valtonen, A., Bodegom, P.M. & Franzén, M. (2017) The effects of soil eutrophication propagate to higher trophic levels.

Global Ecology and Biogeography, 26(1), 18-30. DOI:10.1111/geb.12521 (IF2015 5,84; Q1 Ecology)

Nitrogen deposition is a major global driver of change in plant communities, but its impacts on higher trophic levels are insufficiently understood. Here, we introduce and test a novel conceptual trait-based model describing how the effects of soil eutrophication cascade to higher trophic levels across differential plant–herbivore interactions.


Northern Europe.


We synthesize previous literature on the effects of nitrogen on plants and herbivorous insects as well as relevant multispecies patterns of insect communities concerning species dietary breadth, body size, dispersal propensity and voltinism in order to derive the model. We empirically evaluate the proposed, hitherto untested, four main model pathways using statistical modelling and data on 1064 northern European butterfly and moth species, their life-history traits, phylogeny and population trends.


We show that across all species: (1) larval dietary breadth and host plant foliar nitrogen content are positively and equally strongly related to insect body size, and that (2) multivoltinism, host plant preferences for soil nitrogen, body size and larval dietary breadth are positively related to population trends of butterflies and moths as predicted by the model. Positive relationships between plant foliar nitrogen content and body size as well as multivoltinism and population trends are the first multispecies demonstrations for these patterns.

Main conclusions

Soil nitrogen enrichment amplifies the diverging trends of herbivorous insects feeding on nitrophilous versus nitrophobous plants through differential plant–herbivore interactions, causing predictable changes in community composition at higher trophic levels. A positive foliar nitrogen–insect body size relationship, now empirically supported, is the integrating link within this cascade. As nitrogen deposition is a global driver, our model suggests that a major future trend may be an increased dominance of insects that are large, dispersive, multivoltine, dietary generalists or specialized on nitrophilous plant species at the expense of species preferring oligotrophic