Plant community composition but not plant traits determine the outcome of soil legacy effects on plants and insects

Robin Heinen*, Martijn van der Sluijs, Arjen Biere, Jeffrey A. Harvey, T. Martijn Bezemer

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    Plants leave species-specific legacies in the soil they grow in that can represent changes in abiotic or biotic soil properties. It has been shown that such legacies can affect future plants that grow in the same soil (plant–soil feedback, PSF). Such processes have been studied in detail, but mostly on individual plants. Here, we study PSF effects at the community level and use a trait-based approach both in the conditioning phase and in the feedback phase to study how 12 individual soil legacies influence six plant communities that differ in root size. We tested if (1) grassland perennial species with large root systems would leave a stronger legacy than those with small root systems, (2) grass species would leave a more positive soil legacy than forbs, and (3) communities with large root systems would be more responsive than small-rooted communities. We also tested (4) whether a leaf-chewing herbivore and a phloem feeder were affected by soil legacy effects in a community framework. Our study shows that the six different plant communities that we used respond differently to soil legacies of 12 different plant species and their functional groups. Species with large root systems did not leave stronger legacies than species with small root systems, nor were communities with large root systems more responsive than communities with root systems. Moreover, we show that when communities are affected by soil legacies, these effects carry over to the chewing herbivore Mamestra brassicae (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) through induced behavioural changes resulting in better performance of a chewing herbivore on forb-conditioned soils than on grass-conditioned soils, whereas performance of the phloem feeder Rhopalosiphum padi (Hemiptera: Aphididae) remained unaffected. Synthesis. The results of this study shed light on the variability of soil effects found in previous work on feedbacks in communities. Our study suggests that the composition of plant communities determines to a large part the response to soil legacies. Furthermore, the responses to soil legacies of herbivores feeding on the plant communities that we observed, suggests that in natural ecosystems, the vegetation history may also have an influence on contemporary herbivore assemblages. This opens up exciting new areas in plant–insect research and can have important implications for insect pest management.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1217-1229
    Number of pages13
    JournalJournal of Ecology
    Issue number3
    Early online date11 Nov 2017
    Publication statusPublished - May 2018


    We thank Gregor Disveld for providing greenhouse space at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. Furthermore, we thank Freddy ten Hooven for technical assistance during the experimental phase. We thank Léon Westerd at the Entomology Department of Wageningen University for providing Mamestra brassicae eggs and Martin Verbeek at Plant Research International, Wageningen University for providing a Rhopalosiphum padi starter colony. We also thank Emilia Hannula for her advice and help regarding the soil data. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments, which have greatly improved the manuscript. The research was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO VICI grant 865.14.006 to T.M.B.). This is publication number 6406 of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). The authors declare no conflict of interest.

    FundersFunder number
    Nederlands Instituut voor Ecologie
    Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek865.14.006


      • herbivore
      • Mamestra
      • plant community
      • plant–herbivore interactions
      • plant–soil (below-ground) interactions
      • plant–soil feedback
      • root size
      • soil conditioning
      • soil legacy effects
      • trophic levels


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