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Ecology. 2009 Jan;90(1):183-95.

Latitudinal variation in herbivore pressure in Atlantic Coast salt marshes.

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  • 1Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Houston, Texas 77204, USA.


Despite long-standing interest in latitudinal variation in ecological patterns and processes, there is to date weak and conflicting evidence that herbivore pressure varies with latitude. We used three approaches to examine latitudinal variation in herbivore pressure in Atlantic Coast salt marshes, focusing on five abundant plant taxa: the grass Spartina alterniflora, the congeneric rushes Juncus gerardii and J. roemerianus, the forb Solidago sempervirens, and the shrubs Iva frutescens and Baccharis halimifolia. Herbivore counts indicated that chewing and gall-making herbivores were typically > or = 10 times more abundant at low-latitude sites than at high-latitude sites, but sucking herbivores did not show a clear pattern. For two herbivore taxa (snails and tettigoniid grasshoppers), correctly interpreting latitudinal patterns required an understanding of the feeding ecology of the species, because the species common at high latitudes did not feed heavily on plant leaves whereas the related species common at low latitudes did. Damage to plants from chewing herbivores was 2-10 times greater at low-latitude sites than at high-latitude sites. Damage to transplanted "phytometer" plants was 100 times greater for plants transplanted to low- than to high-latitude sites, and two to three times greater for plants originating from high- vs. low-latitude sites. Taken together, these results provide compelling evidence that pressure from chewing and gall-making herbivores is greater at low vs. high latitudes in Atlantic Coast salt marshes. Sucking herbivores do not show this pattern and deserve greater study. Selective pressure due to greater herbivore damage at low latitudes is likely to partially explain documented patterns of low plant palatability to chewing herbivores and greater plant defenses at low latitudes, but other factors may also play a role in mediating these geographic patterns.

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