We examined how plant genetic variation and a common herbivore (the leaf-galling aphid, Pemphigus betae) influenced leaf litter quality, decomposition, and nutrient dynamics in a dominant riparian tree (Populus spp.). Based on both observational studies and a herbivore exclusion experiment using trees of known genotype, we found four major patterns: 1) the quality of galled vs non-galled or gall-excluded litter significantly differed in the concentration of condensed tannins, lignin, nitrogen and phosphorus; 2) the difference in litter quality resulted in galled litter decomposing at rates 34 to 40% slower than non-galled litter; 3) plant genotype and herbivory had similar effects on the magnitude of decomposition rate constants; and 4) plant genotype mediated the herbivore effects on leaf litter quality and decomposition, as there were genotype-specific responses to herbivory independent of herbivore density. In contrast to other studies that have demonstrated accelerated ecosystem properties in response to arthropod herbivory, our findings argue that herbivore-induced secondary compounds decelerated ecosystem properties though their "after-life" effects on litter quality. Furthermore, these data are among the first to suggest that genotype-specific responses to herbivores can have a major impact on decomposition and nutrient flux, which likely has important consequences for the spatial distribution of nutrients at the landscape level. Due to the magnitude of these effects, we contend that it is important to incorporate a genetic perspective into ecosystem studies.
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