Herbivore adaptations to plant defense

Herbivores are dependent on plants for food, and have coevolved mechanisms to obtain this food despite the evolution of a diverse arsenal of plant defenses against herbivory. Herbivore adaptations to plant defense have been likened to "offensive traits" and consist of those traits that allow for increased feeding and use of a host.[1] Plants, on the other hand, protect their resources for use in growth and reproduction, by limiting the ability of herbivores to eat them. Relationships between herbivores and their host plants often results in reciprocal evolutionary change. When a herbivore eats a plant it selects for plants that can mount a defensive response, whether the response is incorporated biochemically or physically, or induced as a counterattack. In cases where this relationship demonstrates "specificity" (the evolution of each trait is due to the other), and "reciprocity" (both traits must evolve), the species are thought to have coevolved.[2] The escape and radiation mechanisms for coevolution, presents the idea that adaptations in herbivores and their host plants, has been the driving force behind speciation.[3][4] The coevolution that occurs between plants and herbivores that ultimately results in the speciation of both can be further explained by the Red Queen hypothesis. This hypothesis states that competitive success and failure evolve back and forth through organizational learning. The act of an organism facing competition with another organism ultimately leads to an increase in the organism's performance due to selection. This increase in competitive success then forces the competing organism to increase its performance through selection as well, thus creating an "arms race" between the two species. Herbivores evolve due to plant defenses because plants must increase their competitive performance first due to herbivore competitive success.[5]

Mechanical adaptations

The molars of three species of elephant illustrate their different feeding preferences (l-asian elephant, c-african elephant, r-Mastodon ginganteum)

Herbivores have developed a diverse range of physical structures to facilitate the consumption of plant material. To break up intact plant tissues, mammals have developed teeth structures that reflect their feeding preferences. For instance, frugivores (animals that feed primarily on fruit) and herbivores that feed on soft foliage have low-crowned teeth specialized for grinding foliage and seeds. Grazing animals that tend to eat hard, silica-rich grasses, have high-crowned teeth, which are capable of grinding tough plant tissues and do not wear down as quickly as low-crowned teeth.[6] Birds grind plant material or crush seeds using their beaks and gizzards.

Insect herbivores have evolved a wide range of tools to facilitate feeding. Often these tools reflect an individual's feeding strategy and its preferred food type.[7] Within the family Sphingidae (sphinx moths), it has been observed that the caterpillars of species which eat relatively soft leaves are equipped with incisors for tearing and chewing, while the species that feed on mature leaves and grasses cut them with toothless snipping mandibles (the uppermost pair of jaws in insects, used for feeding).[8]

A herbivore's diet often shapes its feeding adaptations. Grasshopper head size, and thus chewing power, was demonstrated to be greater for individuals raised on rye grass (a relatively hard grass) when compared to individuals raised on red clover (a soft diet).[9] Larval Lepidoptera that feed on plants with high levels of condensed tannins (as in trees) have more alkaline midguts when compared to Lepidoptera that feed on herbs and forbs (pH of 8.67 vs. 8.29 respectively). This morphological difference can be explained by the fact that insoluble tannin-protein complexes can be broken down and absorbed as nutrients at alkaline pH levels.[10]

Biochemical adaptations

Herbivores generate enzymes that counter and reduce the effectiveness of numerous toxic secondary metabolic products produced by plants. One such enzyme group, mixed function oxidases (MFOs), detoxify harmful plant compounds by catalyzing oxidative reactions.[11] Cytochrome P450 oxidases (or P-450), a specific class of MFO, have been specifically connected to detoxification of plant secondary metabolic products. One group linked herbivore feeding on plant material protected by chemical defenses with P-450 detoxification in larval tobacco hornworms.[12] The induction of P-450 after initial nicotine ingestion allowed the larval tobacco hornworms to increase feeding on the toxic plant tissues.[12]

An important enzyme produced by herbivorous insects is protease. The protease enzyme is a protein in the gut that helps the insect digest its main source of food: plant tissue. Many types of plants produce protease inhibitors, which inactivate proteases. Protease inactivation can lead to many issues such as reduced feeding, prolonged larval development time, and weight gain. However, many insects, including S. exigua and L. decemlineatu have been selected for mechanisms to avoid the effects of protease inhibitors. Some of these mechanisms include developing protease enzymes that are unaffected by the plant protease inhibitors, gaining the ability to degrade protease inhibitors, and acquiring mutations that allow the digesting of plant tissue without its destructive effects.[13]

Herbivores may also produce salivary enzymes that reduce the degree of defense generated by a host plant. The enzyme glucose oxidase, a component of saliva for the caterpillar Helicoverpa zea, counteracts the production of induced defenses in tobacco.[14] Similarly, aphid saliva reduces its host's induced response by forming a barrier between the aphid's stylet and the plant cells.[15]

Behavioral adaptations

Herbivores can avoid plant defenses by eating plants selectively in space and time. For the winter moth, feeding on oak leaves early in the season maximized the amount of protein and nutrients available to the moth, while minimizing the amount of tannins produced by the tree.[16] Herbivores can also spatially avoid plant defenses. The piercing mouthparts of species in Hemiptera allow them to feed around areas of high toxin concentration. Several species of caterpillar feed on maple leaves by "window feeding" on pieces of leaf and avoiding the tough areas, or those with a high lignin concentration.[17] Similarly, the cotton leaf perforator selectively avoids eating the epidermis and pigment glands of their hosts, which contain defensive terpenoid aldehydes.[1] Some plants only produce toxins in small amounts, and rapidly deploy them to the area under attack. Some beetles counter this adaptation by attacking target plants in groups, thereby allowing each individual beetle to avoid ingesting too much toxin.[18] Some animals ingest large amounts of poisons in their food, but then eat clay or other minerals, which neutralize the poisons. This behavior is known as geophagy.

Plant defense may explain, in part, why herbivores employ different life history strategies. Monophagous species (animals that eat plants from a single genus) must produce specialized enzymes to detoxify their food, or develop specialized structures to deal with sequestered chemicals. Polyphagous species (animals that eat plants from many different families), on the other hand, produce more detoxyfying enzymes (specifically MFO) to deal with a range of plant chemical defenses.[19] Polyphagy often develops when a herbivore's host plants are rare as a necessity to gain enough food. Monophagy is favored when there is interspecific competition for food, where specialization often increases an animals' competitive ability to use a resource.[20]

One major example of herbivorous behavioral adaptations deals with introduced insecticides and pesticides. The introduction of new herbicides and pesticides only selects for insects that can ultimately avoid or utilize these chemicals over time. Adding toxin free plants to a population of transgenic plants, or genetically modified plants that produce their own insecticides, has been shown to minimize the rate of evolution in insects feeding on crop plants. But even so, the rate of adaptation is only increasing in these insects.[21]

Microbial symbionts

Gallwespe bedient sich Eichel2
Galls (upper left and right) A knopper gall formed on an acorn on the branch of an English oak tree by the parthenogenetic gall wasp Andricus quercuscalicis.

Herbivores are unable to digest complex cellulose and rely on mutualistic, internal symbiotic bacteria, fungi, or protozoa to break down cellulose so it can be used by the herbivore. Microbial symbionts also allow herbivores to eat plants that would otherwise be inedible by detoxifying plant secondary metabolites. For example, fungal symbionts of cigarette beetles (Lasioderma serricorne) use certain plant allelochemicals as their source of carbon, in addition to producing detoxification enzymes (esterases) to get rid of other toxins.[22] Microbial symbionts also assist in the acquisition of plant material by weakening a host plant's defenses. Some herbivores are more successful at feeding on damaged hosts.[1] As an example, several species of bark beetle introduce blue stain fungi of the genera Ceratocystis and Ophiostoma into trees before feeding.[23] The blue stain fungi cause lesions that reduce the trees' defensive mechanisms and allow the bark beetles to feed.[24][25]

Host manipulation

Herbivores often manipulate their host plants to use them better as resources. Herbivorous insects favorably alter the microhabitat in which the herbivore feeds to counter existing plant defenses. For example, caterpillars from the families Pyralidae and Ctenuchidae roll mature leaves of the neotropical shrub Psychotria horizontalis around an expanding bud that they consume. By rolling the leaves, the insects reduce the amount of light reaching the bud by 95%, and this shading prevents leaf toughness and leaf tannin concentrations in the expanding bud, while maintaining the amount of nutritional gain of nitrogen.[26] Lepidoptera larvae also tie leaves together and feed on the inside of the leaves to decrease the effectiveness of the phototoxin hypericin in St. John's-wort.[27] Herbivores also manipulate their microhabitat by forming galls, plant structures made of plant tissue but controlled by the herbivore. Galls act as both domatia (housing), and food sources for the gall maker. The interior of a gall is composed of edible nutritious tissue. Aphid galls in narrow leaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) act as “physiologic sinks,” concentrating resources in the gall from the surrounding plant parts.[28] Galls may also provide the herbivore protection from predators.[29]

Some herbivores use feeding behaviors that are capable of disarming the defenses of their host plants. One such plant defensive strategy is the use of latex and resin canals that contain sticky toxins and digestibility reducers. These canal systems store fluids under pressure, and when ruptured (i.e. from herbivory) secondary metabolic products flow to the release point.[30] Herbivores can evade this defense, however, by damaging the leaf veins. This technique minimizes the outflow of latex or resin beyond the cut and allows herbivores to freely feed above the damaged section. Several strategies are employed by herbivores to relieve canal pressure, including vein cutting and trenching. The technique used by the herbivore corresponds to the architecture of the canal system.[31] Dussourd and Denno examined the behavior of 33 species of insect herbivores on 10 families of plants with canals and found that herbivores on plants with branching canal systems used vein cutting, while herbivores found on plants with net-like canal systems employed trenching to evade plant defenses.[31]

Herbivore use of plant chemicals

Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus on Echinacea purpurea 2800px
Monarch butterflies obtain poison from the plants they feed on as larvae, their distinctive appearance serving to warn predators.

Plant chemical defenses can be used by herbivores, by storing eaten plant chemicals, and using them in defense against predators. To be effective defensive agents, the sequestered chemicals cannot be metabolized into inactive products. Using plant chemicals can be costly to herbivores because it often requires specialized handling, storage, and modification.[32] This cost can be seen when plants that use chemical defenses are compared to those plants that do not, in situations when herbivores are excluded. Several species of insects sequester and deploy plant chemicals for their own defense.[33] Caterpillar and adult monarch butterflies store cardiac glycosides from milkweed, making these organisms distasteful. After eating a monarch caterpillar or butterfly, the bird predator will usually vomit, leading the bird to avoid eating similar looking butterflies in the future.[34] Two different species of milkweed bug in the family Hemiptera, Lygaeus kalmii and large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), are colored with bright orange and black, and are said to be aposematically colored, in that they "advertise" their distastefulness by being brightly colored.[35]

Secondary metabolic products can also be useful to herbivores due to the antibiotic properties of the toxins, which can protect herbivores against pathogens.[36] Additionally, secondary metabolic products can act as cues to identify a plant for feeding or oviposition (egg laying) by herbivores.


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Further reading

  • Rosenthal, Gerald A., & Janzen, Daniel H. (editors) (1979), Herbivores: Their Interaction with Secondary Plant Metabolites, New York: Academic Press, p. 41, ISBN 0-12-597180-XCS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
Cascade effect (ecology)

An ecological cascade effect is a series of secondary extinctions that is triggered by the primary extinction of a key species in an ecosystem. Secondary extinctions are likely to occur when the threatened species are: dependent on a few specific food sources, mutualistic (dependent on the key species in some way), or forced to coexist with an invasive species that is introduced to the ecosystem. Species introductions to a foreign ecosystem can often devastate entire communities, and even entire ecosystems. These exotic species monopolize the ecosystem's resources, and since they have no natural predators to decrease their growth, they are able to increase indefinitely. Olsen et al. showed that exotic species have caused lake and estuary ecosystems to go through cascade effects due to loss of algae, crayfish, mollusks, fish, amphibians, and birds. However, the principal cause of cascade effects is the loss of top predators as the key species. As a result of this loss, a dramatic increase (ecological release) of prey species occurs. The prey is then able to overexploit its own food resources, until the population numbers decrease in abundance, which can lead to extinction. When the prey's food resources disappear, they starve and may go extinct as well. If the prey species is herbivorous, then their initial release and exploitation of the plants may result in a loss of plant biodiversity in the area. If other organisms in the ecosystem also depend upon these plants as food resources, then these species may go extinct as well. An example of the cascade effect caused by the loss of a top predator is apparent in tropical forests. When hunters cause local extinctions of top predators, the predators' prey's population numbers increase, causing an overexploitation of a food resource and a cascade effect of species loss. Recent studies have been performed on approaches to mitigate extinction cascades in food-web networks.

Energy flow (ecology)

In ecology, energy flow, also called the calorific flow, refers to the flow of energy through a food chain, and is the focus of study in ecological energetics. In an ecosystem, ecologists seek to quantify the relative importance of different component species and feeding relationships.

A general energy flow scenario follows:

Solar energy is fixed by the photoautotrophs, called primary producers, like green plants. Primary consumers absorb most of the stored energy in the plant through digestion, and transform it into the form of energy they need, such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), through respiration. A part of the energy received by primary consumers, herbivores, is converted to body heat (an effect of respiration), which is radiated away and lost from the system. The loss of energy through body heat is far greater in warm-blooded animals, which must eat much more frequently than those that are cold-blooded. Energy loss also occurs in the expulsion of undigested food (egesta) by excretion or regurgitation.

Secondary consumers, carnivores, then consume the primary consumers, although omnivores also consume primary producers. Energy that had been used by the primary consumers for growth and storage is thus absorbed into the secondary consumers through the process of digestion. As with primary consumers, secondary consumers convert this energy into a more suitable form (ATP) during respiration. Again, some energy is lost from the system, since energy which the primary consumers had used for respiration and regulation of body temperature cannot be utilized by the secondary consumers.

Tertiary consumers, which may or may not be apex predators, then consume the secondary consumers, with some energy passed on and some lost, as with the lower levels of the food chain.

A final link in the food chain are decomposers which break down the organic matter of the tertiary consumers (or whichever consumer is at the top of the chain) and release nutrients into the soil. They also break down plants, herbivores and carnivores that were not eaten by organisms higher on the food chain, as well as the undigested food that is excreted by herbivores and carnivores. Saprotrophic bacteria and fungi are decomposers, and play a pivotal role in the nitrogen and carbon cycles.The energy is passed on from trophic level to trophic level and each time about 90% of the energy is lost, with some being lost as heat into the environment (an effect of respiration) and some being lost as incompletely digested food (egesta). Therefore, primary consumers get about 10% of the energy produced by autotrophs, while secondary consumers get 1% and tertiary consumers get 0.1%. This means the top consumer of a food chain receives the least energy, as a lot of the food chain's energy has been lost between trophic levels. This loss of energy at each level limits typical food chains to only four to six links.

Food web

A food web (or food cycle) is the natural interconnection of food chains and a graphical representation (usually an image) of what-eats-what in an ecological community. Another name for food web is consumer-resource system. Ecologists can broadly lump all life forms into one of two categories called trophic levels: 1) the autotrophs, and 2) the heterotrophs. To maintain their bodies, grow, develop, and to reproduce, autotrophs produce organic matter from inorganic substances, including both minerals and gases such as carbon dioxide. These chemical reactions require energy, which mainly comes from the Sun and largely by photosynthesis, although a very small amount comes from hydrothermal vents and hot springs. A gradient exists between trophic levels running from complete autotrophs that obtain their sole source of carbon from the atmosphere, to mixotrophs (such as carnivorous plants) that are autotrophic organisms that partially obtain organic matter from sources other than the atmosphere, and complete heterotrophs that must feed to obtain organic matter. The linkages in a food web illustrate the feeding pathways, such as where heterotrophs obtain organic matter by feeding on autotrophs and other heterotrophs. The food web is a simplified illustration of the various methods of feeding that links an ecosystem into a unified system of exchange. There are different kinds of feeding relations that can be roughly divided into herbivory, carnivory, scavenging and parasitism. Some of the organic matter eaten by heterotrophs, such as sugars, provides energy. Autotrophs and heterotrophs come in all sizes, from microscopic to many tonnes - from cyanobacteria to giant redwoods, and from viruses and bdellovibrio to blue whales.

Charles Elton pioneered the concept of food cycles, food chains, and food size in his classical 1927 book "Animal Ecology"; Elton's 'food cycle' was replaced by 'food web' in a subsequent ecological text. Elton organized species into functional groups, which was the basis for Raymond Lindeman's classic and landmark paper in 1942 on trophic dynamics. Lindeman emphasized the important role of decomposer organisms in a trophic system of classification. The notion of a food web has a historical foothold in the writings of Charles Darwin and his terminology, including an "entangled bank", "web of life", "web of complex relations", and in reference to the decomposition actions of earthworms he talked about "the continued movement of the particles of earth". Even earlier, in 1768 John Bruckner described nature as "one continued web of life".

Food webs are limited representations of real ecosystems as they necessarily aggregate many species into trophic species, which are functional groups of species that have the same predators and prey in a food web. Ecologists use these simplifications in quantitative (or mathematical representation) models of trophic or consumer-resource systems dynamics. Using these models they can measure and test for generalized patterns in the structure of real food web networks. Ecologists have identified non-random properties in the topographic structure of food webs. Published examples that are used in meta analysis are of variable quality with omissions. However, the number of empirical studies on community webs is on the rise and the mathematical treatment of food webs using network theory had identified patterns that are common to all. Scaling laws, for example, predict a relationship between the topology of food web predator-prey linkages and levels of species richness.

Invasive species

An invasive species is a species that is not native to a specific location (an introduced species), and that has a tendency to spread to a degree believed to cause damage to the environment, human economy or human health.The term as most often used applies to introduced species that adversely affect the habitats and bioregions they invade economically, environmentally, or ecologically. Such species may be either plants or animals and may disrupt by dominating a region, wilderness areas, particular habitats, or wildland–urban interface land from loss of natural controls (such as predators or herbivores). This includes plant species labeled as exotic pest plants and invasive exotics growing in native plant communities. The European Union defines "Invasive Alien Species" as those that are, firstly, outside their natural distribution area, and secondly, threaten biological diversity. The term is also used by land managers, botanists, researchers, horticulturalists, conservationists, and the public for noxious weeds.The term "invasive" is often poorly defined or very subjective and some broaden the term to include indigenous or "native" species, that have colonized natural areas - for example deer considered by some to be overpopulating their native zones and adjacent suburban gardens in the Northeastern and Pacific Coast regions of the United States.The definition of "native" is also sometimes controversial. For example, the ancestors of Equus ferus (modern horses) evolved in North America and radiated to Eurasia before becoming locally extinct. Upon returning to North America in 1493 during their hominid-assisted migration, it is debatable as to whether they were native or exotic to the continent of their evolutionary ancestors.Notable examples of invasive plant species include The kudzu vine, Andean pampas grass, and yellow starthistle. Animal examples include the New Zealand mud snail, feral pigs, European rabbits, grey squirrels, domestic cats, carp and ferrets.Invasion of long-established ecosystems by organisms from distant bio-regions is a natural phenomenon, but has been accelerated massively by humans, from their earliest migrations though to the age of discovery, and now international trade.

Mesopredator release hypothesis

The mesopredator release hypothesis is an ecological theory used to describe the interrelated population dynamics between apex predators and mesopredators within an ecosystem, such that a collapsing population of the former results in dramatically-increased populations of the latter. This hypothesis describes the phenomenon of trophic cascade in specific terrestrial communities.

A mesopredator is a medium-sized, middle trophic level predator, which both preys and is preyed upon. Examples are raccoons, skunks, snakes, cownose rays, and small sharks.

Plant defense against herbivory

Plant defense against herbivory or host-plant resistance (HPR) describes a range of adaptations evolved by plants which improve their survival and reproduction by reducing the impact of herbivores. Plants can sense being touched, and they can use several strategies to defend against damage caused by herbivores. Many plants produce secondary metabolites, known as allelochemicals, that influence the behavior, growth, or survival of herbivores. These chemical defenses can act as repellents or toxins to herbivores, or reduce plant digestibility.

Other defensive strategies used by plants include escaping or avoiding herbivores in any time and/or any place, for example by growing in a location where plants are not easily found or accessed by herbivores, or by changing seasonal growth patterns. Another approach diverts herbivores toward eating non-essential parts, or enhances the ability of a plant to recover from the damage caused by herbivory. Some plants encourage the presence of natural enemies of herbivores, which in turn protect the plant. Each type of defense can be either constitutive (always present in the plant), or induced (produced in reaction to damage or stress caused by herbivores).

Historically, insects have been the most significant herbivores, and the evolution of land plants is closely associated with the evolution of insects. While most plant defenses are directed against insects, other defenses have evolved that are aimed at vertebrate herbivores, such as birds and mammals. The study of plant defenses against herbivory is important, not only from an evolutionary view point, but also in the direct impact that these defenses have on agriculture, including human and livestock food sources; as beneficial 'biological control agents' in biological pest control programs; as well as in the search for plants of medical importance.

Productivity (ecology)

In ecology, productivity refers to the rate of generation of biomass in an ecosystem. It is usually expressed in units of mass per unit surface (or volume) per unit time, for instance grams per square metre per day (g m−2 d−1). The mass unit may relate to dry matter or to the mass of carbon generated. Productivity of autotrophs such as plants is called primary productivity, while that of heterotrophs such as animals is called secondary productivity.

Sustainable gardening

Sustainable gardening includes the more specific sustainable landscapes, sustainable landscape design, sustainable landscaping, sustainable landscape architecture, resulting in sustainable sites. It comprises a disparate group of horticultural interests that can share the aims and objectives associated with the international post-1980s sustainable development and sustainability programs developed to address the fact that humans are now using natural biophysical resources faster than they can be replenished by nature.Included within this compass are those home gardeners, and members of the landscape and nursery industries, and municipal authorities, that integrate environmental, social, and economic factors to create a more sustainable future.

Organic gardening and the use of native plants are integral to sustainable gardening.

Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components


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