Researchers at UCSB have discovered environmental connections between the diversity of plants and how they maintain ecological balance.

Multiple professors and doctoral students set off to determine what keeps the most environmentally fit plants from conquering weaker ones. The study began as an attempt to find out the strength of the competition-predator defense tradeoff, which assumes that plants that are the best at competing with other plants are kept in check by the herbivores that consume them.

The outcome of the research, the scientists said, was unexpected.

The study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, stated that plant communities are kept in a diverse balance because their predators keep them in equilibrium — although not as much as the researchers expected.

David Viola, lead author and doctoral student in UCSB’s Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology Dept., said the discovery has challenged ecologists’ former beliefs.

“The tradeoff is not really all that common. It’s something that a lot of ecologists assume,” Viola said. “So we now know that it’s not happening as much as we thought,”

Their observations found the strongest competitors in most plant groups were in fact more resistant to plant eaters rather than less.

Although the tradeoff seems to be less common than presumed, the study still displays relationships between competitive plants and the animals that eat them.

“Basically, you can imagine that there are some species that are really good at growing or grow [the] fastest,” Viola said. “We want to know why they don’t just take over and kick out all the other species. The reason is that they are eaten more, because they’re not as well-defended. If you remove an herbivore, it can throw everything out of whack.”

Many advances were used to obtain these results. The team of researchers used previous data to help them draw information. Jonathan Levine, an EEMB professor, said he and the other researchers found previously recorded data extremely beneficial in their studies for measuring the characteristics of plants.

This research is not only assisting ecologists. People across the nation believe it’s an important aspect of environmental knowledge. Erin Mordecai, a doctoral student working on the project considers the study a central lesson in conservation and environmental awareness.

“I think it’s really important to have a review like this because it shows that it’s not a common diversity mechanism. It has a lot of implications for conserving species diversity in nature,” Mordecai said.

The team will continue to look for answers in the ecological field. Levine’s ambitions include a network of ecological sites so the experiment can be applied in more areas.

“We want to try the same analysis with an ongoing nationwide ecological experiment,” Levine said. “We don’t know if we can do that but it’s one of our hopes.”