Herbivory, intraspecific trait variability and back to herbivory

Published in Oikos 2022(6)

Lucas D. Gorné &  Sandra Díaz

Publication year 2022
DOI https://doi.org/10.1111/oik.09054
  • Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, CONICET, IMBiV Córdoba Argentina
  • Univ. Nacional de Córdoba, Facultad de Ciencias Exactas Físicas y Naturales Córdoba Argentina
IAI Program

Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) SGP-HW 090

IAI Project SGP-HW 090
PDFHerbivory, intraspecific trait variability and back to herbivory.pdf


Ungulate herbivory is a key driver of leaf trait syndromes and defense strategies at the ecological and macroevolutionary levels. Herbivory should also cause short-term evolution within plant populations, but few studies have experimentally tested this prediction. We set out to experimentally assess the plastic and heritable effects of contemporary history of ungulate herbivory on 1) leaf trait syndromes at the intraspecific level, and on the defense traits, 2) leaf size and 3) size of spines.

We measured leaf traits (specific leaf area, leaf dry matter content, leaf nitrogen concentration and leaf mechanical resistance) in populations of six grass and four woody legume species that had grown under contrasting pressures of domestic ungulate herbivory for at least 40 years. We then performed a common garden experiment, measuring the same traits. Next, we performed cutting experiments on the plants grown in the common garden to measure leaf trait plasticity. In the woody species, we also measured the length of spines and the leaf size (average area per leaf), in the field and in the common garden experiment.

We found that in grasses field herbivory over decades produced a displacement toward more acquisitive leaf trait syndromes. Most of these changes appeared largely due to plasticity. In woody legume species, in contrast, herbivory produced a displacement towards more conservative leaves, longer spines and smaller leaves, with the trait differences between histories of herbivory being mostly hereditary. These results point out that vertebrate herbivory can lead to evolutionary processes at contemporary time scales even in long-lived perennial plant species, but the direction of such change depends on the life form of the species. These divergent effects could depend on the predominant anti-herbivore strategies in the different life forms (tolerance versus resistance).