Biological and environmental contrasts between aquatic and terrestrial systems have hindered analyses of community and ecosystem structure across Earth's diverse habitats. Ecological stoichiometry1,2 provides an integrative approach for such analyses, as all organisms are composed of the same major elements (C, N, P) whose balance affects production, nutrient cycling, and food-web dynamics3,4. Here we show both similarities and differences in the C:N:P ratios of primary producers (autotrophs) and invertebrate primary consumers (herbivores) across habitats. Terrestrial food webs are built on an extremely nutrient-poor autotroph base with C:P and C:N ratios higher than in lake particulate matter, although the N:P ratios are nearly identical. Terrestrial herbivores (insects) and their freshwater counterparts (zooplankton) are nutrient-rich and indistinguishable in C:N:P stoichiometry. In both lakes and terrestrial systems, herbivores should have low growth efficiencies (10–30%) when consuming autotrophs with typical carbon-to-nutrient ratios. These stoichiometric constraints on herbivore growth appear to be qualitatively similar and widespread in both environments.
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This paper is a contribution from the Ecological Stoichiometry working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a centre funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of California, and the State of California. We thank the staff of NCEAS for logistical support. We also thank S. Nielsen for providing an electronic summary of his extensive data set on autotroph elemental composition. D. Strong, I. Loladze and C. Mitter provided useful comments.
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