Plant Interactions with Herbivores

Abstract

Plants are eaten by a tremendous array of herbivores, including almost half of known insect species. Although herbivores consume most plants to some degree, many plants are also relatively well defended, and herbivore populations are often limited by predators. The net result of these processes is that the extent of herbivory, and the strength of its effects on plant populations and ecosystem processes, are highly variable. Herbivores strongly influence plants in aquatic environments, productive environments and environments with nutritious, poorly defended plants or few predators. Effects of herbivores can also be accentuated through positive feedbacks between herbivory and soil resources, in which herbivore‐mediated changes in plant community composition accelerate or decelerate nutrient cycling. Although research on herbivory has focused primarily on natural systems, few of these systems are free of human influence. Humans dramatically change plant–herbivore relationships by removing predators, increasing plant resource availability and moving both plants and herbivores around the globe.

Key concepts

  • Plants defend themselves effectively, using a combination of chemical defences and physical defences and tolerance.

  • Plant defence theory aims to explain variation among species and ecosystems in the types and amounts of plant defence.

  • In addition to plant defences, the extent of herbivory is limited by predation, which can greatly reduce herbivore abundance.

  • Despite plant defences and predation, herbivores often have strong effects on plants.

  • Positive feedbacks between plant resources, plant traits and herbivores can increase the influence of herbivores on plants and ecosystems.

  • Humans dramatically alter plant–herbivore dynamics by moving plants and herbivores, reducing the abundance of predators, increasing nutrient availability and changing the spatial distribution of plant communities.

Keywords: grazing; herbivory; plant defence; plant productivity and diversity; predation

Figure 1.

Pine beetle effects on a lodgepole pine forest in Colorado, USA. Photo by Erik Hardy.

Figure 2.

(a) Musk ox on tundra in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (photo by Heidi Steltzer). (b) Impala in tropical savanna in Laikipia, Kenya (photo by David Augustine).

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Blumenthal, Dana, and Augustine, David(Sep 2009) Plant Interactions with Herbivores. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003203.pub2]