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Putting the insect into the birch–insect interaction


Leaf maturation in mountain birch (Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii) is characterized by rapid shifts in the types of dominant phenolics: from carbon-economic flavonoids aglycons in flushing leaves, via hydrolysable tannins and flavonoid glycosides, to carbon-rich proanthocyanidins (condensed tannins) in mature foliage. This shift accords with the suggested trade-offs between carbon allocation to plant defense and growth, but may also relate to the simultaneous decline in nutritive leaf traits, such as water, proteins and sugars, which potentially limit insect growth. To elucidate how birch leaf quality translates into insect growth, I introduce a simple model that takes into account defensive compounds but also acknowledges insect demand for nutritive compounds. The effects of defensive compounds on insect growth depend strongly on background variation in nutritive leaf traits: compensatory feeding on low nutritive diets increases the intake of defensive compounds, and the availability of growth-limiting nutritive compounds may modify the effects of defenses. The ratio of consumption to larval growth (both in dry mass) increases very rapidly with leaf maturation: from 2.9 to 9.8 over 2 weeks in June–July, and to 15 by August. High concentrations in mature birch leaves of "quantitative" defenses, such as proanthocyanidins (15–20% of dry mass), presumably prevent further consumption. If the same compounds had also protected half-grown leaves (which supported the same larval growth with only one third of the dry matter consumption of older leaves), the same intake of proanthocyanidins would have demanded improbably high concentrations (close to 50%) in young leaves. The model thus suggests an adaptive explanation for the high levels of "quantitative" defenses, such as proanthocyanidins, in low-nutritive but not in high-nutritive leaves because of the behavioral responses of insect feeding to leaf nutritive levels.

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I want to thank all the members of the Turku group and the staff of the Kevo Subarctic Research Station for making this work possible. Ellen Valle checked the language. The work has been supported financially by the Academy of Finland (grant 43518).

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Correspondence to Erkki Haukioja.

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Haukioja, E. Putting the insect into the birch–insect interaction. Oecologia 136, 161–168 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-003-1238-z

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  • Birch
  • Herbivory
  • Compensatory feeding
  • Water
  • Phenolics