Stress frequency structures communities

COVID-19 has amplified our experience of stress, but even in a COVID-free world, we share with most other organisms a continuously stressful existence, highlighted by situations affecting our survival (e.g. getting food and not becoming someone else’s food) and our reproductive success.  Today we will discuss organisms that live in a very stressful environment – the subtidal zone off of the Galapagos islands – located just below the line demarcating the furthest extent of low tide.  One serious stress for subtidal organisms is coping with dramatically fluctuating ocean currents.  The speedy surgeonfish uses its powerful pectoral fins and slender, disc-shaped body to minimize drag, permitting feeding in high flow conditions brought about by powerful ocean waves.  In contrast, the broad-bodied torpedo-shaped parrotfish is unable to do so; for it, fast water is too much of a drag.


Yellowtail surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius) stand out as voracious herbivores that can feed even in the most wave-swept coastlines of the Galapagos Islands. Credit: Dr. Alejandro Perez-Matus.

Waters near the Galapagos Islands are enriched by upwelling equatorial currents, which provide nutrients to a diverse community of plankton and benthic (attached to the ocean bottom) algae.  These in turn support a high diversity of macroinvertebrates and herbivorous fish that feed on them, including the pencil urchin, Eucidaris galapagensis, a voracious feeder on algae, barnacles and coral. This species wedges itself among rocks and crevices during the day, and emerges to feed at night.  It attaches itself (and moves very slowly) using its tube feet.  Robert Lamb, Franz Smith and Jon Witman hypothesized that given the weak attachment strength of the pencil urchin’s tube feet, it might only be an effective feeder in locations where wave action was minimal.


Robert Lamb bolts experimental cages to the rock as Eucidaris urchins stand guard at the sheltered side of Caamaño. Credit: Salome Buglass.

To explore how wave action might affect the subtidal community, the researchers set up two research locations at Caamaño and Las Palmas – both off the Galapagos Island of Santa Cruz.


Effect of wave action (exposed – dark bar, sheltered – light bar) on abundance of some of the important members of the subtidal community off of the island of Santa Cruz.


At each location, they chose an exposed site with strong wave action and a sheltered site that had much reduced wave action.  Mean flow speed was more than twice as fast at exposed sites than in sheltered sites. As you can see in the figure to your left, site differences in mean flow speed corresponded to differences in the subtidal community. Crustose coralline algae (red algae firmly attached to corals) were more common in sheltered sites (Figure A), while a variety of red and green macroalgae were more common at exposed sites (Figure B).  Surgeonfish (Figure C) and parrotfish (Figure D) were much more abundant in exposed areas, while pencil urchins were much more abundant in sheltered sites (Figure E).






Lamb and his colleagues wanted to know why these differences exist. They set up a series of exclosures within each of these sites using wire mesh cages to either allow fish, but not urchins (+ fish treatment), allow urchins but not fish (+ urchins), or exclude both groups of herbivores (- all).  They also had a control treatment that allowed all herbivores (+ all).


In one experiment the researchers created sandwiches made up of the delectable green algae Ulva.  For five days, they ran six replicates of each treatment at exposed and sheltered sites at Caamaño and Las Palmas. Lamb and his colleagues then harvested the sandwiches, weighed them, and calculated the percent remaining of each sandwich.


An Ulva sandwich

At exposed locations, urchins (without fish) consumed very little Ulva, while fish (without urchins) consumed about 2/3 of the Ulva (when compared to the –all controls). In contrast, at sheltered locations, urchins took some mighty significant bites from the Ulva sandwiches, while fish also ate substantial Ulva at Caamaño, but not at Las Palmas.


Percent of Ulva biomass remaining after five days of the Ulva sandwich experiment. Error bars are 1 SE.

In a related experiment, the researchers used the same cages to explore how macroalgal communities assemble themselves in the presence or absence of urchin and fish herbiores under different flow rates.  If this was not enough to consider, they also ran these experiments both during the cool season, when nutrient-rich ocean currents lead to high production, and during the warm season when production is usually lower.  Lamb and his colleagues bolted two 13 X 13 cm polycarbonate plates to the bottom of each cage, and after two months measured the abundance and type of algae that colonized each plate.

Several trends emerge.  First, macroalgae colonized much more effectively during the cool season.  Second, urchins profoundly reduced macroalgal colonization at sheltered sites, but had little effect at exposed sites.  In contrast, fish herbivory reduced macroalgal colonization at exposed sites at Caamaño but not Las Palmas, during the warm and cool season.


Effect of herbivores on macroalgal community assembly, as measured by amount of algae colonizing the polycarbonate plates after two weeks.

In addition, the researchers set up video cameras and were able to document herbivory by 17 fish species, with drastically higher herbivory rates at exposed sites.

Lamb and his colleagues conclude that the dominant herbivores switched between urchins in low flow sites and fish in exposed sites. Fish can leave the resource patch when stress (flow rate) is unusually high, and return when flow rate drops, while the slow-moving pencil urchins do not have that option. The researchers argue that in many ecosystems, consumer mobility in relation to the frequency of environmental stress can predict how consumers influence community structure and assembly.  They point out that the coupling of mobility effects with environmental stress is common throughout the natural world.  As examples, many shorebirds feed on marine organisms that become available during low tides, or also between crashing waves.  Large mammals in Africa can migrate long distances to escape drought-stricken areas, while smaller animals cannot undertake such long journeys.  In locally acidic regions of the Mediterranean Sea, many fish species can enter, feed and leave before experiencing toxic effects from the acid water, while slow-moving urchins are excluded from feeding in those habitats. Thus, while extreme environmental stress often decreases consumer activity, there are also times when it doesn’t.  In these cases, we need to understand how particular species will behave and perform in the stressful environment to predict how stress influences community structure and functioning.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Lamb, R. W.,  Smith, F., and  Witman, J. D..  2020.  Consumer mobility predicts impacts of herbivory across an environmental stress gradient. Ecology  101( 1):e02910. 10.1002/ecy.2910. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2020 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Turkey mullein trichomes gobble up protective pollen

I’m always amazed at how brilliant plants can be.  For example Billy Krimmel and Ian Pearse showed in 2013 that many plant species exude sticky substances that entrap small arthropods, thereby attracting predators, which then rid these plants of many herbivores that might otherwise consume their leaves or reproductive structures. Jennifer Van Wyk joined this research group (which included Laure Crova) in graduate school. They were hunting for predatory hemipterans (true bugs) for a different experiment, which involved looking for them on turkey mullein (Croton setiger). They found plenty of predators, but almost no prey.  This was puzzling; what were these predators eating?  Intrigued, the researchers swabbed the turkey mullein leaves for pollen and found relatively vast quantities of pollen trapped in the trichomes (hairlike protuberances) of the leaves. Much of the pollen was from other species, and the researchers suspected that the trichomes were removing pollen from pollinators (primarily bees) that came to visit. Presumably the predators, which included spiders, hemipterans and ants, were attracted to this highly nutritious pollen.


Turkey mullein with predaceous hemipteran on lower right leaf. Credit: Billy Krimmel –

Van Wyk and her colleagues wondered whether pollen capture benefitted turkey mullein. If turkey mullein used pollen to attract predators, and predators ate herbivores, pollen extraction by trichomes would be an adaptation that formed part of turkey mullein’s defense strategy.  If this is true, supplementing turkey mullein with additional pollen should increase visitation by predators, and decrease herbivore abundance.  With fewer herbivores, the researchers predicted less leaf damage.


Turkey mullein with herbivore-damaged leaves

Supplementing turkey mullein with additional pollen presents its own set of problems – most importantly coming up with enough pollen – in particular pollen that predators want to eat (Van Wyk and her colleagues collected a pound of oak pollen, only to find that predacious bugs were not interested in it).  The researchers grew sunflowers in greenhouses, secured squash pollen from friends’ gardens and used tuning forks to vibrate pollen from tarweed flowers.

The researchers then set up experiments using 60 turkey mullein plants from one population in 2013 and 80 plants from another population in 2014. Nearby plants were paired up, with one member of the pair receiving 150 mg of supplemental pollen each week from mid-August to mid-September.  They surveyed all arthropods visible to the naked eye, and categorized each species as predator or herbivore based on its primary diet (many of the arthropods were actually omnivorous).

In accordance with expectations, predator abundance was substantially greater in the supplemented populations in both years of the study. Spiders showed the most consistent increase, while Orius (the minute pirate bug) increased significantly in the 2014 population. The 2014 population had fewer arthropods of all species, possibly because it was immediately adjacent to an agricultural field.


Mean predator abundance per plant in 2013 (top) and 2014 (bottom). Geocoris is a Genus of big-eyed bugs, while Orius is the minute pirate bug. ** p < 0.01, † p < 0.1. Error bars are 1 standard error.

The results are less clear-cut with herbivore abundance.  Fleahoppers were 18% less abundant on supplemented plants in 2014, and slightly (not significantly) less abundant in supplemented plants in 2013.  Plants with a greater number of spiders had fewer fleahoppers, suggesting that spiders were eating them (or scaring them away). The researchers were unable to measure the abundance of an important herbivore, the grey hairstreak caterpillar, which forages primarily at night, and retreats into the soil during the heat of the day.


Mean number of fleahoppers  per plant in 2013 (left graph) and 2014 (right graph).  Blue bars indicated plants with supplemented pollen. * p < 0.05.

Lastly, supplemented plants suffered much less leaf damage than did unsupplemented plants.


Mean number of damaged leaves per plant in 2013 (left graph) and 2014 (right graph).  Blue bars indicated plants with supplemented pollen. ** p < 0.01.

Taken together, these experiments indicate that turkey mullein uses its trichomes to capture pollen and attract a diverse army of predators, which reduce herbivore abundance and reduce damage to the plant.  It is possible that pollen supplementation could be used on a larger scale to reduce herbivore loads on agricultural crops.  More generally, it will be interesting to see whether other plants with sticky trichomes, such as the marijuana plant Cannabis sativa, also use their trichomes to attract predators and reduce herbivore abundance.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Van Wyk, J. I.,  Krimmel, B. A.,  Crova, L., and  Pearse, I. S..  2019.  Plants trap pollen to feed predatory arthropods as an indirect resistance against herbivory. Ecology  100( 11):e02867. 10.1002/ecy.2867. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Females are better speakers and better listeners than males – at least in plants

My age puts me smack dab in the middle of the woo-woo generation, when many people engaged in activities, or shared in belief systems, that were criticized as unscientific, spacey or just plain bizarre.  For example, talking to your plants was purported to make them bigger, greener or more florid.  This hypothesis generated a huge number of science fair projects, but no clear answers (so far as I know – but I admit that I have not done the appropriate research!).  But, it turns out that plants do talk to each other and to some animals.  When attacked by herbivores, many plant species will emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air that can have two effects.  First, these VOCs can alert nearby plants that herbivores are in the area, and that they should start producing defense compounds in their tissues that will repel these herbivores.  Second, these VOCs can alert predators that herbivores are present, and they should swing by and eat them.

Several studies have shown that female and male plants may differ in several ways that could affect communication.  Females typically invest more in reproduction, grow more slowly and invest more in defense against herbivory. Xoaquin Moreira and his colleagues wondered if sexual dimorphism in defense investment would result in differences between males and female in how they talk to each other. They chose the woody shrub Baccharis salicifolia, in which females grow more slowly but invest more in chemical defense and thus are infested by fewer herbivores than are males.  They focused their study on chemical responses of the plant to the highly-specialized aphid Uroleucon macolai, which only feeds on two Baccharis species.


Baccharis salicifolia hosting an army of herbivorous aphids. Credit: X. Moreira.

The researchers used greenhouse experiments to explore how Baccharis uses VOCs for communication.  To control aphid movement, each treatment was done in a mesh cage, with one centrally located VOC emitter plant (of either sex), and one female and one male receiver plant equally distant from the central plant. Control emitter plants were untreated, while herbivore-induced emitter plants were given 15 mature aphids, which fed and reproduced on the plants for 15 days.  After 15 days Moreira and his colleagues removed all of the emitter plants and all of the aphids, and then inoculated each receiver plant with two adult aphids.  The researchers measured aphid reproductive rate on the fifth day as their measure of aphid performance, or of plant resistance to aphids.


Emitter Baccharis salicifolia plant flanked by one male and one female receiver plant. Credit X. Moreira.

Aphids did much more poorly on male and female receiver plants that were associated with male herbivore-induced emitter plants (top graph below).  This implies that these receiver plants became resistant to aphids as a result of their exposure to an airborne substance released by the male emitter plant.  When the researchers used female emitter plants they found something very different.  There was no effect on male receivers, but still a very strong effect on female receivers, which had a much lower aphid reproductive rate than the female plants exposed to untreated female emitter plants (bottom graph below).


Reproductive performance of aphids raised on control receiver plants (emitter plant with no aphids – clear bars) and herbivore-induced emitter plants (gray bars).  Two left bars show performance on male receiver plants, while two right bars show performance on female receiver plants. Top graph shows data for male emitters and bottom graph shows data for female emitters. Error bars = 1 SE. *** indicates P < 0.001.

Showing differences between sexes in communication is important, but the next step is to figure out how this happens.  In previous research, Moreira and his colleagues identified seven different VOCs that Baccharis emitted after aphid herbivory.  So they explored whether there were differences between males and females in how much of each VOC they emitted in response to aphids.  As before, they subjected some plants (of each sex) to herbivory and others were untreated controls. They then bagged each plant, and passed the collected vapors over a charcoal filter trap at a constant rate for an equal period of time.  After extracting the substances from the charcoal, the researchers used a gas chromatograph to identify and quantify the VOCs.


Setup for collecting VOCs from Baccharis salicifolia. Credit X. Moreira.

The most impressive finding was a fivefold increase in pinocarvone release by female herbivore-induced plants in comparison to controls.  In contrast, in males there was only a minor pinocarvone effect.


Relative increase in VOC emission following aphid attack in female (clear triangle) vs. male (filled triangle) Baccharis salicifolia. The induction effect is the log response ration (LRR) which is the natural log of (emission by the herbivore induced plants divided by the emission by the control plants).  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.

Having discovered that females emit much more pinocarvone than males, the next question was whether females are more sensitive to pinocarvone, or in fact to any of the other VOCs.  So Moreira and his colleagues exposed plants to one of three treatments: 100 ul of pure pinocarvone, 100 ul of six VOCs including pinocarvone, and a control (no VOCs).  They discovered that all experimental treatments reduced herbivory in comparison to the controls, but that there was no difference between males and females in how they responded.


Reproductive performance of aphids raised on female plants (left graph) or male plants (right graph) subjected to pinocarvone or a blend of six VOCs (including pinocarvone) in comparison to reproductive performance on untreated control plants (dashed line on top of each graph).  Shading surrounding dashed line indicates 1 SE.  Error bars are 1 SE.

This lack of different response between male and female plants to pinocarvone was a bit surprising; the researchers speculate that both males and females have pinocarvone receptors, but that female receptors are more sensitive (or numerous). If true, natural emissions of pinocarvone may suffice to induce a response in female but not male plants. But the artificial emitters may have released enough pinocarvone to stimulate male plants to respond as well. Clearly there is much more work to do here.

The researchers also wanted to know whether plants were more sensitive to VOCs produced by genetically identical plants (clones) in comparison to genetically-distant plants.  They discovered no influence of genetic relatedness on plant response to herbivory.  This is important, because from an evolutionary standpoint, there is no obvious reason why a plant would want to warn an unrelated plant that it was about to get eaten. An adaptive explanation is that relatives may tend to live near each other, so an emitter plant still benefits indirectly by promoting the survival of relatives who carry a proportion of genes identical to its own genetic constitution. One possible non-adaptive explanation is that a plant may use VOCs as a way of quickly communicating with itself, informing distant tissues that they need to produce defense compounds.  Nearby plants may simply be eavesdropping on this conversation, and using it to their advantage.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Moreira, X., Nell, C. S., Meza‐Lopez, M. M., Rasmann, S. and Mooney, K. A. (2018), Specificity of plant–plant communication for Baccharis salicifolia sexes but not genotypes. Ecology, 99: 2731-2739. doi:10.1002/ecy.2534. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.


Savanna plant survival: hanging out in the right crowd

Tyler Coverdale first visited the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya in 2013, and immediately became painfully aware of the abundant spiny and thorny plants that cover the savanna.  Spines help defend the plants from voracious elephants, giraffes and numerous other herbivores that depend on vegetation for their sustenance.


Camels browsing on  Barleria trispinosa at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. Credit Tyler Coverdale.

Acacia trees such as Acacia etbaica (left foreground below) dominate the landscape, and may be associated with smaller shrubs, such as Barleria trispinosa. In the photo below, there is one B. trispinosa plant immediately below (on the right side) the acacia tree, and a second B. trispinosa plant to its right, more out in the open.  Coverdale realized that being situated immediately below a spiny acacia tree might be advantageous to B. trispinosa, which could be protected from the ravages of elephants and giraffes by the acacia thorns .

MRC landscape

Credit: Tyler Coverdale.

As you might guess by its name, B. trispinosa is itself a very spiny plant, which should help protect it from browsers.  Nonetheless, it still gets eaten, so Coverdale and his colleagues explored whether being under acacias would reduce how much it, and two other related species, got browsed.

Barleria trispinosa

Barleria trispinosa out in the open. Credit: Tyler Coverdale.

The first study was observational – a survey of the damage three species of Barleria suffered when they were under (associated with) acacia trees vs. unassociated with acacia trees. For each Barleria species, the researchers haphazardly chose 10 stems from eight associated and eight unassociated plants, and measured the proportion of these stems that showed physical evidence of being browsed.  As the figure below shows, browsing was sharply lower for each species when it was associated with an acacia plant.


Percentage of stems damaged by browsers for three Barleria species in relation to whether they were associated or unassociated with an acacia tree.* indicates significant differences between means in all figures.

The understory plant community associated with acacias is much denser than the plant community out in the open, so the researchers wondered whether it was the acacia itself, or the other plants associated with it, that were providing protection. They set up an experiment using focal B. trispinosa plants with four treatments (A) unmanipulated control, (B) overstory removal, (C) overstory + understory removal, (D) a procedural control with overstory + understory removal, with the focal plant enclosed in a metal cage to protect it from predators (see Figure below).


Coverdale and his colleagues ran the experiment for one month.  They discovered that removing overhanging acacia branches sharply increased herbivory, but the additional removal of understory neighbors had little additional effect.  Both the unmanipulated controls and procedural controls were unaffected.


Change in % of stems browsed for (A) unmanipulated control (left bar), (B) overstory removal (second from left bar), (C) overstory + understory removal (second from right bar), (D) a procedural control (right bar).  Different letters above bars indicate significant differences between the mean values.

The researchers then investigated how useful these spines are to unassociated B. trispinosa plants. They set up another experiment with four types of spine treatments: (A) unmanipulated controls, (B) 50% spine removal, (C) 100% spine removal, (D) procedural control with 100% spine removal + enclosure within a predator-proof cage. These cages were vandalized shortly after the experiment was set up, so the researchers chose eight plants from a nearby plot (that had all predators excluded for a different experiment) as their procedural control. They discovered that spines are very useful to protect against predators in unassociated B. trispinosa.


Change in % of stems browsed for (A) unmanipulated control (left bar), (B) 50% spine removal (second from left bar), (C) all spines removed (second from right bar), (D) procedural control (right bar).

If you were a plant living under the protection of an acacia tree, it would make sense for you to reduce your investment in thorns, so you could allocate more resources to growth and reproduction.  Does Barleria do this?


Several lines of evidence indicate that all three Barleria species reduce their investment in spines when associated with an acacia. First, a survey of spine density shows a reduced number of spines for all three species when they were associated with acacia trees (top graph).  Second, the spines that are present are significantly shorter in Barleria species associated with acacia trees (middle graph).  In a final survey, Coverdale and his colleagues cut all of the spines off of associated and unassociated Barleria.  For each plant, the researchers calculated the dry weight of spines and of all the other plant tissue.  For each Barleria species, the defensive investment – the ratio of spines to total mass, was substantially reduced in acacia-associated plants in comparison to unassociated plants (bottom graph).

Lastly, can plants react adaptively to browsing?  In other words, will understory plants produce more thorns if they are browsed?  To explore this question, the researchers used scissors to simulate moderate (25%) or heavy (50%) browsing.  They discovered a significant increase in spines produced by unassociated plants one month after clipping. Ecologists call this an induced defense. This induced defense is strongly suppressed in plants that have lived under the protection of acacia trees – in fact there was no significant response to experimental browsing in acacia-associated B. trispinosa plants. The researchers don’t know how long this suppression of induced responses persists. Would browsing induce increased spine growth in B. trispinosa six months, a year or two years after its protective acacia tree died?

Coverdale and his colleagues conclude that the overall benefit of association is positive to the plant populations.  Their studies show better survival and higher reproductive rates of acacia-associated understory plants. There is probably a cost associated with too many offspring competing for resources within a small area, as seedlings tend to grow within 1 meter of their parents.  However the reduction in defense costs probably overrides this cost of competition, leading to increased population size.  The researchers suggest a long-term study of population growth rates for acacia-associated and unassociated plants for several different species to see how general these effects are, and to explore whether other factors, such as soil moisture and nutrient levels influence the allocation and induction of defensive structures such as spines and thorns.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Coverdale, T. C., Goheen, J. R., Palmer, T. M. and Pringle, R. M. (2018), Good neighbors make good defenses: associational refuges reduce defense investment in African savanna plants. Ecology, 99: 1724-1736. doi:10.1002/ecy.2397. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Mangroves partner with rats in China

Many of us have seen firsthand the havoc that invasive plants can wreak on ecosystems.  We are accustomed to think of native plants as unable to defend themselves, much like a skinny little kid surrounded by a group of playground bullies. ‘Not so fast’ says Yihui Zhang.  As it turns out, many native plants can defend themselves against invasions, and they do so with the help of unlikely allies.

In southern China, mangrove marshes are being invaded by the salt marsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, which is native to the eastern USA coastline. Cordgrass seeds can float into light gaps among the mangroves, and then germinate and choke out mangrove seedlings.  However, intact mangrove forests can resist cordgrass invasion.  Zhang and his colleagues wanted to know how they resist.

mangrove-Spartina ecotone

Cordgrass (pale green) meets mangrove (bright green) as viewed from space. Credit: Yihui Zhang.

Cordgrass was introduced into China in 1979 to reduce coastal erosion.  It proved up to the task, quickly transforming mudflats into dense cordgrass stands, and choking out much of the native plant community.  Dense mangrove forests grow near river channels that enter the ocean, and are considerably taller than their cordgrass competitors.  The last player in this interaction is a native rat, Rattus losea, which often nests on mangrove canopies above the high tide level. At the research site (Yunxiao), many rat nests were built on mangroves, using cordgrass leaves and stems as the building material.


Rat nest constructed from cordgrass shoots rests upon a mangrove tree.  Credit Yihui Zhang.

Zhang and his colleagues suspected that cordgrass invasion into the mangrove forest was prevented by both competition from mangroves and herbivory by rats on cordgrass.

Baby rat in the nest

Baby rats in their nest. Credit Yihui Zhang.


To test this hypothesis, they built cages to exclude rats from three different habitats: open mudflats (primarily pure stands of cordgrass), the forest edge, and the mangrove forest understory, (with almost no cordgrass). They set up control plots that also had cages, but that still allowed rats to enter.


Arrow points to resprouting cordgrass. Credit Yihui Zhang.

The researchers planted 6 cordgrass ramets (genetically identical pieces of live plant) in each plot and then monitored rodent grazing, resprouting of original shoots following grazing, and shoot survival over the next 70 days.

They discovered that the cages worked; no rats grazed inside the cages.  But in the control plots, grazing was highest in the forest understory and lowest in the mudflats (Top figure below).  Most important, both habitat type and exposure to grazing influenced cordgrass survival.  In the understory, rodent grazing was very important; only one ramet survived in the control plots, while 46.7% of ramets survived if rats were excluded.  In the other two habitats, grazing did not affect ramet survival, which was very high with or without grazing (Middle figure). Rodent grazing effectively eliminated resprouting of ramets in the understory, but not in the other two habitats (Bottom figure).


Impact of rat grazing on cordgrass in the field study in three different habitats.  Top figure is % of stems grazed, middle figure is transplant survival, and bottom figure is resprouting after grazing (there was no grazing in the rodent exclusion plots). Error bars are 1 standard error. Different letters above bars indicate significant differences between treatments.

The researchers suspected that low light levels in the understory were preventing cordgrass from resprouting after rat grazing. This was most easily tested in the greenhouse, where light conditions could be effectively controlled.  High light was 80% the intensity of outdoor sunlight, medium light was 33% (about what strikes the forest edge) and low light was 10% the intensity of outdoor sunlight (similar to mangrove understory light).  Rat grazing was simulated by cutting semi-circles on the stembase, pealing back the leaf sheath, and digging out the leaf tissue. Cordgrass ramets were planted in large pots, exposed to different light and grazing treatments, and monitored for survival, growth and resprouting following grazing.

Greenhouse setup

Cordgrass growing in greenhouse under different light treatments. Credit: Yihui Zhang.

Zhang and his colleagues found that simulated grazing sharply reduced cordgrass survival from 85% to 7% at low light intensity, but had no impact on survival at medium or high light intensities.  Cordgrass did not resprout after simulated grazing at low light intensity, in contrast to approximately 50% resprouting at medium and high light intensity.


Survival (top) and resprouting (bottom) of cordgrass following simulated grazing in the greenhouse experiment.

The researchers conclude that grazing by rats and shading by mangroves are two critical factors that make mangroves resistant to cordgrass invasion. Rats tend to build their nests near the mangrove forest edge, so it is not clear how far into the forest the rat effect extends. Rats do prefer to forage in the understory (rather than right along the edge), presumably because the understory helps to protect them from predators.  In essence, mangroves compete directly with cordgrass by shading them out, and also indirectly by attracting cordgrass-eating rats. Conservation biologists need to be aware of both direct and indirect effects when designing management programs for protecting endangered ecosystems such as mangrove forests.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Zhang, Y. , Meng, H. , Wang, Y. and He, Q. (2018), Herbivory enhances the resistance of mangrove forest to cordgrass invasion. Ecology. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/ecy.2233. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Field gentian – when it’s good to be eaten

We tend to think of plants as victims – after all any interested herbivore can simply walk, fly or crawl over to its favorite plant, and begin munching. But not so fast! In reality, plants have a variety of ways they can make life difficult for potential herbivores. Plants can escape herbivores by simply growing in places that are not easily accessible (such as in cracks, or high enough to be out of a herbivore’s reach) or by growing at a time of year when herbivores are away from the plant’s habitat. Plants also use mechanical defenses such as thorns or a diverse array of chemical defenses to thwart overzealous herbivores. A third approach – tolerance – can take many forms. For example, following attack by a herbivore some plants can increase photosynthetic rates or reduce the time until seed production . Tommy Lennartsson and his colleagues were interested in a particular form of tolerance that ecologists call overcompensation, in which damaged plants produce more seeds than undamaged plants.


Herbivores in action. Notice the difference in vegetation height inside and outside the pasture. Credit: Tommy Lennartsson.

Overcompensation is an evolutionary puzzle, because undisturbed plants produce fewer offspring than partially eaten plants. That outcome seems to fly in the face of the scientific principle that natural selection favors individuals with traits that promote reproductive success. Lennartsson and his colleagues investigated this evolutionary puzzle by comparing two subspecies of the herbaceous field gentian Gentianella campestris. The first subspecies, Gentianella campestris campestris (which we’ll just call campestris), has relatively unbranched shoot architecture when intact, growing to about 20 cm tall, but produces multiple fruiting branches when the dominant apical meristem is eaten. The second subspecies, Gentianella campestris islandica (which we’ll call islandica), is much shorter (about 5-10 cm tall), and always has a multi-branched architecture.


Two subspecies of field gentian – campestris (left) and islandica (right).

Environmental conditions and soils can vary dramatically, even on a small spatial scale. The field site was a gently-sloped grassland in Sweden that had coarser, dryer soil on the ridge, and finer, wetter and richer soil in the valley. This created a productivity gradient, with taller vegetation in the valley. The average  height of all the vegetation was 15 cm in the high-productivity valley, 10 cm on the medium-productivity slope and 5 cm on the low-productivity ridge.

The researchers used this natural variation to set up an experiment that would allow them to explore hypotheses about why an undisturbed campestris is less successful than one that is partially-eaten. One hypothesis (the overcompensation hypothesis) is that campestris restrains branching to conserve resources, so that when it is grazed it has plenty of resources in reserve to be used for regrowth and the production of prolific branches, flowers and seeds. Limited branching and limited seed production of ungrazed campestris are simply a cost of tolerance, while overcompensation after damage maximizes reproductive success. A second hypothesis (the competition hypothesis) is that restrained branching allows the plant to grow tall, so it can compete better in ungrazed pastures than can the much shorter islandica. These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive.

To test these two hypotheses, the researchers set up 2 X 2 meter experimental plots in the valley (18 plots), slope (12 plots) and the ridge (6 plots). They planted 2000 seeds per subspecies in each plot, which ultimately yielded about 20 plants of each subspecies per plot. Of course there were many other neighboring plant species in these plots. In the high productivity plots (valley), the neighboring plants in six plots were clipped to a height of 12 cm, six plots to 8 cm and six plots to 4 cm. In the medium productivity plots (which naturally only grew to 10 cm), the researchers cut neighboring plants to 8 cm in 6 plots and 4 cm in six plots. Finally, in the low productivity plots, the researchers cut neighboring plants to 4 cm in all six plots. In mid July, half of the gentian plants in each plot were clipped to the same height as the surrounding vegetation, while the remainder were not clipped.


Experimental plots from the valley (left), slope (middle) and ridge (right).  Black squares represent plots where neighboring plants were clipped to 12 cm, grey squares to 8 cm, and clear squares to 4 cm. Squares with slashes through them (left)  represent plots that were used for a different purpose.

The beauty of this experimental design, is that by counting seeds, the researchers could assess the reproductive success of both subspecies under conditions of high competition (when surrounded by tall neighbors) and low competition (when surrounded by shorter neighbors). At the same time, clipping the two subspecies allowed the researchers to simulate grazing in these different competitive environments. Lennartsson and his colleagues found that unclipped islandica did better than unclipped campestris when surrounded by short or medium height neighbors, but that islandica success plummeted when the neighbors were very tall (see the left graph below). Campestris reproductive success also dropped when surrounded by tall competitors, but not as much as did islandica, so that campestris produced twice as many seeds than islandica in the high competition environment (also the left graph).

When plants were clipped to simulate grazing, campestris outperformed islandica in all three competitive environments. Campestris actually produced more seeds when it was clipped than when it was not clipped in the low and medium competition environments. Thus campestris overcompensated for grazing under conditions of low and moderate competition (see the right graph below).


Mean (+ standard error) seed production for unclipped (left graph) and clipped (right graph) field gentian subspecies in relation to surrounding vegetation height.  Sample sizes are in bars.

The researchers collected data on growth rates, development, survival probabilities and reproductive success for both species under conditions of being clipped or unclipped at different levels of competition. They then used these data to create a population growth model in relation to the percentage of grazing (damage risk) at different levels of productivity. In these graphs, a stochastic growth rate of 1.0 (on the y-axis) indicates that the population is stable, above 1.0 indicates it will increase and below 1.0 indicates a declining population.


Population growth rate of both subspecies in relation to damage risk at different levels of productivity.  These models predict that the population will increase at growth rates above the dotted line (growth rate = 1.0) and decline below the dotted line.

This model shows that in high productivity environments, campestris always does better than islandica (top graph). However, the model predicts that islandica will decline at any damage level (note in the top graph that all islandica damage values yield a growth rate below 1.0), while campestris will also decline except for very high damage risks. In medium and low productivity populations (middle and bottom graphs), islandica does better than campestris when damage risk is low, but the reverse is true at high damage risk.

So how do these results relate to the two hypotheses for why an undisturbed campestris is less successful than one that is partially-eaten. Campestris overcompensated for damage by producing more seeds and having positive population growth under most levels of productivity. In contrast, islandica undercompensated when damaged, but produced more seeds than campestris when ungrazed, except for in the high productivity environment. These differences in responses support the hypothesis that restrained branching is favored by natural selection in environments where damage from grazing is common (the overcompensation hypothesis). But, the superior performance by campestris in productive ungrazed environments supports the competition hypothesis.

Can we generalize these findings to other plants? Lennartsson and his colleagues point out that many short-lived grassland plants can’t grow tall enough to be effective competitors for light. These plants are thus restricted to environments where the surrounding plants are not very tall. Two factors commonly create conditions where there are short neighboring plants: grazing and unproductive (low nutrient) soils. When grazing is widespread, tolerance mechanisms such as overcompensation are favored by natural selection. When soils are unproductive, unrestrained branching is favored. Therefore, Gentianella campestris provides us with a natural experiment for testing hypotheses about how natural selection acts on plants to promote their reproductive success in a variable environment.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Lennartsson, T., Ramula, S. and Tuomi, J. (2018), Growing competitive or tolerant? Significance of apical dominance in the overcompensating herb Gentianella campestris. Ecology, 99: 259–269. doi:10.1002/ecy.2101. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.