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Evolution. 2000 Feb;54(1):81-92.

Grazing optimization, nutrient cycling, and spatial heterogeneity of plant-herbivore interactions: should a palatable plant evolve?

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  • 1Laboratoire d'Ecologie, UMR 7625, Ecole Normale SupĂ©rieure, Paris, France.


Can the evolution of plant defense lead to an optimal primary production? In a general theoretical model, Loreau (1995) and de Mazancourt et al. (1998, 1999) have shown that herbivory could increase primary production up to a moderate rate of grazing intensity through recycling of a limiting nutrient, provided several conditions are fulfilled. In the present paper, we assume: (1) grazing intensity is controlled by plants through their level of palatability; and (2) plant fitness is determined by its productivity. We explore the conditions under which such an optimal production may be reached through natural selection. We model two competing plant types that differ only in palatability and are distributed in a patchy landscape determined by the plant-herbivore interaction. Patch size is determined by herbivore behavior: herbivores recycle nutrient homogeneously within patches, but recycle nutrient proportionally to consumption between patches. The model shows that a strategy of intermediate palatability can be adaptive in response to a small herbivore that lives on and recycles nutrient around one or a few individual plants. For moderately small herbivores, plant palatability may evolve towards one of two local convergent strategies, depending on the initial conditions. For medium- to large-sized herbivores, the nonpalatable strategy is always selected. We discuss the functional and evolutionary implications of these results, and suggest that the traditional dichotomy describing antagonistic and mutualistic interactions may be misleading.

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