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Testing the diet-breadth trade-off hypothesis: differential regulation of novel plant secondary compounds by a specialist and a generalist herbivore

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Abstract

Specialist herbivores are predicted to have evolved biotransformation pathways that can process large doses of secondary compounds from the plant species on which they specialize. It is hypothesized that this physiological specialization results in a trade-off such that specialists may be limited in ability to ingest novel plant secondary compounds (PSCs). In contrast, the generalist foraging strategy requires that herbivores alternate consumption of plant species and PSC types to reduce the possibility of over-ingestion of any particular PSC. The ability to behaviorally regulate is a key component of this strategy. These ideas underpin the prediction that in the face of novel PSCs, generalists should be better able to maintain body mass and avoid toxic consequences compared to specialists. We explored these predictions by comparing the feeding behavior of two herbivorous rodents: a juniper specialist, Neotoma stephensi, and a generalist, Neotoma albigula, fed diets with increasing concentrations of phenolic resin extracted from the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), which produces a suite of PSCs novel to both species. The specialist lost more mass than the generalist during the 15-day trial. In addition, although the specialist and generalist both regulated phenolic resin intake by reducing meal size while on the highest resin concentration (4%), the generalist began to regulate intake on the 2% diet. The ability of the generalist to regulate intake at a lower PSC concentration may be the source of the generalist’s performance advantage over the specialist. These data provide evidence for the hypothesis that the specialist’s foraging strategy may result in behavioral as well as physiological trade-offs in the ability to consume novel PSCs.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Dr. J. Lokvam and many undergraduate assistants for their help with the resin extraction procedures: R. Bares, A. Bares, A. Fitzgerald, M. Yeo, and A. Briles. Drs. P.D. Coley, F. Goller, W. Potts and anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on the manuscript. We would also like to thank Dr. J. Malenke for assistance with creosote collection and Dr. N. Geary for the use of his equipment. Finally, we would like to thank Dr. G.P. Smith for his thoughtful comments on these ideas. This work was supported by NSF IOS-0817527 and IBN-0326402 to MDD and a grant from the American Museum of Natural History to A-M.T.

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Correspondence to A-M. Torregrossa.

Additional information

Communicated by Jörg Ganzhorn.

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Torregrossa, A., Azzara, A.V. & Dearing, M.D. Testing the diet-breadth trade-off hypothesis: differential regulation of novel plant secondary compounds by a specialist and a generalist herbivore. Oecologia 168, 711–718 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-011-2121-y

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Keywords

  • Neotoma
  • Meal size
  • Plant–animal interactions
  • Biotransformation
  • Dietary toxin