Life-history constraints in grassland plant species: A growth-defence trade-off is the norm

Eric M. Lind*, Elizabeth Borer, Eric Seabloom, Peter Adler, Jonathan D. Bakker, Dana M. Blumenthal, Mick Crawley, Kendi Davies, Jennifer Firn, Daniel S. Gruner, W. Stanley Harpole, Yann Hautier, Helmut Hillebrand, Johannes Knops, Brett Melbourne, Brent Mortensen, Anita C. Risch, Martin Schuetz, Carly Stevens, Peter D. Wragg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

152 Citations (Scopus)


Plant growth can be limited by resource acquisition and defence against consumers, leading to contrasting trade-off possibilities. The competition-defence hypothesis posits a trade-off between competitive ability and defence against enemies (e.g. herbivores and pathogens). The growth-defence hypothesis suggests that strong competitors for nutrients are also defended against enemies, at a cost to growth rate. We tested these hypotheses using observations of 706 plant populations of over 500 species before and following identical fertilisation and fencing treatments at 39 grassland sites worldwide. Strong positive covariance in species responses to both treatments provided support for a growth-defence trade-off: populations that increased with the removal of nutrient limitation (poor competitors) also increased following removal of consumers. This result held globally across 4 years within plant life-history groups and within the majority of individual sites. Thus, a growth-defence trade-off appears to be the norm, and mechanisms maintaining grassland biodiversity may operate within this constraint.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-521
Number of pages9
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Coexistence
  • Competition-defence hypothesis
  • Life history
  • Mammalian herbivory
  • Nutrient Network (NutNet)
  • Resource limitation
  • Tolerance
  • Top-down bottom-up
  • Trade-offs

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