Natural enemies govern ecosystem resilience in the face of extreme droughts.
Severe droughts are on the rise in many regions. But thus far, attempts to predict when drought will cause a major regime shift or when ecosystems are resilient, often using plant drought tolerance models, have been frustrated. Here, we show that pressure from natural enemies regulates an ecosystem's resilience to severe droughts. Field experiments revealed that in protected salt marshes experiencing a severe drought, plant-eating grazers eliminated drought-stressed vegetation that could otherwise survive and recover from the climate extreme, transforming once lush marshes into persistent salt barrens. These results provide an explicit experimental demonstration for the obligatory role of natural enemies across the initiation, expansion and recovery stages of a natural ecosystem's collapse. Our study highlights that natural enemies can hasten an ecosystem's resilience to drought to much lower levels than currently predicted, calling for integration into climate change predictions and conservation strategies.
He, Q; Silliman, BR; Liu, Z; Cui, B
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