Native insect herbivory overwhelms context dependence to limit complex invasion dynamics of exotic weeds.
Understanding the role of consumers in density-dependent plant population dynamics is a long-standing goal in ecology. However, the generality of herbivory effects across heterogeneous landscapes is poorly understood due to the pervasive influence of context-dependence. We tested effects of native insect herbivory on the population dynamics of an exotic thistle, Cirsium vulgare, in a field experiment replicated across eight sites in eastern Nebraska. Using hierarchical Bayesian analysis and density-dependent population models, we found potential for explosive low-density population growth (λ >5) and complex density fluctuations under herbivore exclusion. However, herbivore access drove population decline (λ <1), suppressing complex fluctuations. While plant-herbivore interaction outcomes are famously context-dependent, we demonstrated that herbivores suppress potentially invasive populations throughout our study region, and this qualitative outcome is insensitive to environmental context. Our novel use of Bayesian demographic modelling shows that native insect herbivores consistently prevent hard-to-predict fluctuations of weeds in environments otherwise susceptible to invasion.