Herbivory and Plant Defenses

Herbivory is the consumption of plant tissues by animals. This usually has a negative impact on plant growth and reproduction, and so imposes natural selection on plants, thereby favoring the evolution of traits that reduce losses (defenses).

Plants have developed physical defenses that reduce the likelihood of herbivory.
Plants have developed physical defenses that reduce the likelihood of herbivory.

Terrestrial plants generally lose less than 10 percent of annual production to herbivores. Fish can consume 100 percent in some shallow-water marine systems in days or weeks, and single-celled algae are often eaten as fast as they reproduce. A few terrestrial herbivores (gypsy moths or locusts, for example) occasionally experience population explosions during which they may totally defoliate their preferred food plants over wide areas A loss of even 15 percent of annual production can reduce plant growth and fitness.

The fact that some herbivores occasionally can consume most or all vegetation suggests that something prevents this most of the time. Two dominant opposing hypotheses are that "top-down" forces (predators, parasites , disease) limit herbivore populations so all plants are not consumed, or that "bottom-up" forces (plant quality) prevent herbivores from eating some plant tissues. In reality both forces combine to limit herbivores and herbivory. Herbivore damage is greater in simplified managed systems, reflecting the loss of these interactions.

Plants have developed numerous physical (spines, thorns, tough tissues, sticky resins, and hairs) and chemical defenses that may reduce herbivory. Some of these are fixed (constitutive), whereas others are only produced (induced) when the plant is attacked. A tremendous diversity of plant biochemicals are toxic, repellent, or antinutritive for herbivores of all types. Many of these chemicals have been called "secondary metabolites " because roles have not been found for them in primary plant functions like growth and reproduction. Examples include alkaloids (such as caffeine and nicotine), terpenoids (terpene and pinene), glucosinolates (sinigrin), and phenolics (tannin and chlorogenic acid).

Although many of these compounds appear to have specific activity in animal systems, such as interfering with neurotransmission, recent research suggests that they may have other functions in plants. Nonetheless, it is clear that plant chemistry is a major barrier to herbivory. It is also exploited by humans in medicinal plant use and pharmaceutical development.

While all plants produce chemical defenses continuously, all plants so far studied also change or increase production of both physical and chemical defenses when attacked by herbivores. Defenses can be induced throughout a plant, even in unattacked tissues or tissues produced after the attack, producing systemic resistance. New physical and chemical defenses may be synthesized, enzymes may activate preexisting defenses, or tissues may be dropped (abscised) to remove pests. This requires detection, coordination, and response. Plants can discriminate among and respond differentially to wounding (such as wind damage) and herbivores, or even among herbivores.

Chemicals found in insect regurgitant (mouth juices) trigger plant responses; these cues may be produced by the insect or by bacteria living in their guts. Fatty acid signals made by the plant (especially jasmonic acid) in response to attack circulate widely, stimulating defense gene expression and providing systemic resistance. Methyl jasmonate is volatile and escapes wounded plants, triggering defense responses in nearby unwounded plants.

Because producing defenses requires materials (such as carbon and nitrogen) and energy that presumably could be used for growth or reproduction, many believe that defense may be costly for plants. Clear evidence of this is difficult to obtain, but some plants grow or reproduce less when producing maximum defenses, providing indirect support. The types of defenses employed by fast-growing versus slow-growing, or early-versus late-successional plant species differ in consistent ways, but why this is so is not clear. One benefit of induced defenses could be cost-saving, since they are only produced when needed. Induced or constitutive , plant defense chemistry influences litter quality, decomposition and nutrient cycling in ecosystems .

Herbivores, especially insects, have developed behavioral and biochemical mechanisms that reduce the effects of plant defenses. Plant evolution includes ongoing development of new defenses, which is thought to favor the evolution of new herbivore adaptations and promote speciation in both plants and herbivores. This kind of reciprocal evolutionary impact is called coevolution. While all plants gain some protection from defenses, no plant escapes herbivory by at least some adapted herbivores. Plant defenses and consumer adaptation can limit consumption, and thus can determine the length and shape of food webs .

SEE ALSO Herbal Medicine ; Hormones, Plant ; Plant Pathogens and Pests ; Poisonous Plants ; Secondary Metabolites in Plants

Jack C. Schultz


Agosta, William C. Thieves, Deceivers and Killers: Tales of Chemistry in Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Karban, Rick, and Ian T. Baldwin. Induced Responses to Herbivory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Rosenthal, Gerald, and May R. Berenbaum. Herbivores: Their Interaction with Secondary Plant Metabolites. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1991.

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