The terrestrial food web links creatures on land, from the tiniest microbes in the soil to the large mammals of the forests. Ecologists at SERC study the connections between herbivores (plant-eaters), scavengers (eaters of dead plants or animals), and decomposers. These links can reveal secrets about climate change, biodiversity and the ongoing battle between native and invasive species.
In Maryland, where SERC is based, native white-tailed deer and non-native sika deer from Japan both have the power to impact the state's forests. As these large herbivores continue to thrive, what do they mean for the area’s native plants? In one past project, SERC ecologists set up live cameras to videotape deer in action, to uncover whether they’re eating native or invasive plants. In another, they built fences around forest plots to keep deer away and test whether native or invasive plants grow better with deer gone. Diversity can give the plants an advantage. SERC researchers have discovered tastier plants are more likely to survive in more diverse plots, where they’re surrounded by less appealing plants.
Smaller herbivores can also be major players in the terrestrial food web. In SERC forests, researchers are tracking which kinds of plants are most vulnerable to insect herbivores, and what type of damage the insects do. In the tropics, SERC ecologists are investigating how mangrove trees in Florida, Australia, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the globe fare against insects and crabs—and whether pollution makes them more or less at risk. Even scavengers like pill bugs have a role to play. As they consume the rotting material the rest of the food chain shuns, these tiny creatures could also be slowing down climate change.