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Ecology. 2009 Dec;90(12):3393-405.

Gross vs. net income: How plant toughness affects performance of an insect herbivore.

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, Heydon Laurence Building, A08, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.


Leaf biomechanical properties are thought to impose a significant obstacle to herbivores and as such influence patterns of herbivory more than leaf chemistry. However, evidence for the role of structural traits in influencing herbivore food choice and performance has come from correlative studies, whereas the underlying mechanisms have been given little attention. By manipulating the biomechanical properties of a host grass species through a combination of lyophilization and milling, and providing water separately, we were able to compare behavioral, physiological, and developmental responses of the Australian plague locust, Chortoicetes terminifera, to the biomechanical properties of plant food (exemplified by toughness) independently of the food's macronutrient content and the insect's demand for water. Increasing leaf toughness was associated with reduced rates of locust growth and prolonged development, with potential ecological consequences. Poorer performance on the tougher foods was primarily a consequence of a reduced rate of nutrient supply, which occurred as a result of (1) smaller meals being eaten more slowly, (2) slowed gut passage rates, which limited how quickly the next meal could be taken, and (3) reduced efficiency of assimilation of nutrients from food in the gut. In addition, there were deleterious changes in the ratio of protein to carbohydrate assimilated from the gut. Prolonged development time was associated with increased total nutrient demands throughout the extended developmental period. Because these demands could not be met by increased consumption, there was a decreased efficiency of conversion of assimilated nutrients to growth. By disentangling the effects of biomechanical properties from macronutrient and water content we have shown that leaf biomechanical traits can influence chewing herbivores independently of leaf chemical traits.

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