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Can plant resistance to specialist herbivores be explained by plant chemistry or resource use strategy?

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At both a macro- and micro-evolutionary level, selection of and performance on host plants by specialist herbivores are thought to be governed partially by host plant chemistry. Thus far, there is little evidence to suggest that specialists can detect small structural differences in secondary metabolites of their hosts, or that such differences affect host choice or performance of specialists. We tested whether phytochemical differences between closely related plant species are correlated with specialist host choice. We conducted no-choice feeding trials using 17 plant species of three genera of tribe Senecioneae (Jacobaea, Packera, and Senecio; Asteraceae) and a more distantly related species (Cynoglossum officinale; Boraginaceae) containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), and four PA-sequestering specialist herbivores of the genus Longitarsus (Chrysomelidae). We also assessed whether variation in feeding by specialist herbivores is attributable to different resource use strategies of the tested plant species. Plant resource use strategy was quantified by measuring leaf dry matter content, which is related to both plant nutritive value and to plant investment in quantitative defences. We found no evidence that intra-generic differences in PA profiles affect feeding by specialist herbivores. Instead, our results indicate that decisions to begin feeding are related to plant resource use strategy, while decisions to continue feeding are not based on any plant characteristics measured in this study. These findings imply that PA composition does not significantly affect host choice by these specialist herbivores. Leaf dry matter content is somewhat phylogenetically conserved, indicating that plants may have difficulty altering resource use strategy in response to selection pressure by herbivores and other environmental factors on an evolutionary time scale.

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We thank Prof T. Hartmann for performing GC–MS analyses. Thanks to three anonymous reviewers for their comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Heather Kirk.

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Communicated by Diethart Matthies.

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Kirk, H., Vrieling, K., Pelser, P.B. et al. Can plant resistance to specialist herbivores be explained by plant chemistry or resource use strategy?. Oecologia 168, 1043–1055 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-011-2179-6

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  • Phytochemical evolution
  • Host selection
  • Pyrrolizidine alkaloids
  • Longitarsus (Chrysomelidae)
  • Asteraceae (Senecio, Packera, Jacobaea)