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Influence of drought on plant performance through changes in belowground tritrophic interactions

Bruce E. Hibbard, Anouk Guyer, Annelie Holzkämper, Matthias Erb, Christelle A. M. Robert
Ecology and evolution 2018 v.8 no.13 pp. 6756-6765
Diabrotica virgifera virgifera, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, Solenopsis molesta, agroecosystems, biomass, climate change, corn, corn cobs, drought, entomopathogenic nematodes, evolution, field experimentation, herbivores, natural enemies, risk, silk, soil water, tritrophic interactions, water content, water stress, weight
Climate change is predicted to increase the risk of drought in many temperate agro-ecosystems. While the impact of drought on aboveground plant- herbivore- natural enemy interactions has been studied, little is known about its effects on below-ground tritrophic interactions and root defense chemistry. We investigated the effects of low soil moisture on the interaction between maize, the western corn rootworm (WCR, Diabrotica virgifera), and soil-borne natural enemie of WCR In a manipulative field experiment, reduced soil moisture and WCR attack reduced plant performance and increased benzoxazinoid levels. The negative effects of WCR on cob dry weight and silk emergence were strongest at low moisture levels. Inoculation with entomopathogenic nematodes (EPNs, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora ) was ineffective in controlling WCR, and the EPNs died rapidly in the warm and dry soil. However, ants of the species Solenopsis molesta invaded the experiment, were more abundant in WCR-infested pots and predated WCR independently of soil moisture. Ant presence increased root and shoot biomass and was associated with attenuated moisture-dependent effects of WCR on maize cob weight. Our study suggests that apart from directly reducing plant performance, drought can also increase the negative effects of root herbivores such as WCR. It furthermore identifies S. molesta as a natural enemy of WCR that can protect maize plants from the negative impact of herbivory under drought stress. Robust herbivore natural enemies may play an important role in buffering the impact of climate change on plant- herbivore interactions.