Allee dynamics generated by protection mutualisms can drive oscillations in trophic cascades

Understanding the relative effect of top predators and primary producers on intermediate trophic levels is a key question in ecology. Most previous work, however, has not considered either realistic nonlinearities in feedback between trophic levels or the effect of mutualists on trophic cascades. Here, we develop a realistic model for a protection mutualism that explicitly includes interactions between a protected herbivore and both its food plant and generalist predators. In the absence of protection, herbivores and plant resources approach a stable equilibrium, provided that predation is not so high as to cause herbivore extinction. In contrast, adding protection by mutualists increases the range of dynamical outcomes to include unstable equilibria, stable and unstable limit cycles, and heteroclinic orbits. By reducing the impact of predators, protection by mutualists can allow herbivores to exert strong negative effects on their host plants, which in turn can lead to repeated cycles of overexploitation and recovery. Our results indicate that it may be essential to consider protection mutualisms to understand the dynamics of trophic cascades. Conversely, it may be essential to explicitly include dynamical feedback between plants and herbivores to fully understand the population and community dynamical consequences of protection mutualism.

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