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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2018 Jul 11. doi: 10.1111/brv.12444. [Epub ahead of print]

The functions of foliar nyctinasty: a review and hypothesis.

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Department of Natural Sciences, Mercy College, 555 Broadway, Dobbs Ferry, NY, 10522, U.S.A.


Foliar nyctinasty is a plant behaviour characterised by a pronounced daily oscillation in leaf orientation. During the day, the blades of nyctinastic plant leaves (or leaflets) assume a more or less horizontal position that optimises their ability to capture sunlight for photosynthesis. At night, the positions that the leaf blades assume, regardless of whether they arise by rising, falling or twisting, are essentially vertical. Among the ideas put forth to explain the raison d'être of foliar nyctinasty are that it: (i) improves the temperature relations of plants; (ii) helps remove surface water from foliage; (iii) prevents the disruption of photoperiodism by moonlight; and (iv) directly discourages insect herbivory. After discussing these previous hypotheses, a novel tritrophic hypothesis is introduced that proposes that foliar nyctinasty constitutes an indirect plant defence against nocturnal herbivores. It is suggested that the reduction in physical clutter that follows from nocturnal leaf closure may increase the foraging success of many types of animals that prey upon or parasitise herbivores. Predators and parasitoids generally use some combination of visual, auditory or olfactory cues to detect prey. In terrestrial environments, it is hypothesised that the vertical orientation of the blades of nyctinastic plants at night would be especially beneficial to flying nocturnal predators (e.g. bats and owls) and parasitoids whose modus operandi is death from above. The movements of prey beneath a plant with vertically oriented foliage would be visually more obvious to gleaning or swooping predators under nocturnal or crepuscular conditions. Such predators could also detect sounds made by prey better without baffling layers of foliage overhead to damp and disperse the signal. Moreover, any volatiles released by the prey would diffuse more directly to the awaiting olfactory apparatus of the predators or parasitoids. In addition to facilitating the demise of herbivores by carnivores and parasitoids, foliar nyctinasty, much like the enhanced illumination of the full moon, may mitigate feeding by nocturnal herbivores by altering their foraging behaviour. Foliar nyctinasty could also provide a competitive advantage by encouraging herbivores, seeking more cover, to forage on or around non-nyctinastic species. As an added advantage, foliar nyctinasty, by decreasing the temperature between plants through its effects on re-radiation, may slow certain types of ectothermic herbivores making them more vulnerable to predation. Foliar nyctinasty also may not solely be a behavioural adaptation against folivores; by discouraging foraging by granivores, the inclusive fitness of nyctinastic plants may be increased.


anti-herbivory; foliar nyctinasty; leaf movements; nocturnal carnivores; plant defence; tritrophic interactions; trophic facilitation


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