Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 45, Issue 11–12, pp 993–1003 | Cite as

Terpenes May Serve as Feeding Deterrents and Foraging Cues for Mammalian Herbivores

  • Michele M. SkopecEmail author
  • Robert P. Adams
  • James P. Muir


Terpenes, volatile plant secondary compounds produced by woody plants, have historically been thought to act as feeding deterrents for mammalian herbivores. However, three species of woodrats, Neotoma stephensi, N. lepida, and N. albigula, regularly consume juniper, which is high in terpenes, and N. stephensi and N. lepida are considered juniper specialists. By investigating the terpene profiles in Juniperus monosperma and J. osteosperma, which are browsed or avoided by woodrats in the field, and recording the caching and consumption of juniper foliage by woodrats in the lab, we have evidence that terpenes may serve as feeding and/or foraging cues. The obligate specialist N. stephensi chose to forage on trees higher in p-cymene and preferred to consume juniper rather than caching it in a laboratory setting. These observations provide evidence that terpenes serve as a feeding cue and that the obligate specialist’s physiological mechanism for metabolizing the terpenes present in juniper may negate the need for caching. The facultative specialist N. lepida chose to forage on trees lower in four terpenes and cached more juniper than the obligate specialist N. stephensi, providing evidence that terpenes serve as a feeding deterrent for N. lepida and that this woodrat species relies on behavioral mechanisms to minimize terpene intake. The generalist N. albigula foraged on trees with higher terpenes levels but consumed the least amount of juniper in the lab and preferred to cache juniper rather than consume it, evidence that terpenes act as foraging but not feeding cues in the generalist. Our findings suggest that volatile plant secondary compounds can act as feeding and/or foraging cues and not just feeding deterrents in mammalian herbivores.


Plant-mammal interactions Terpenes Neotoma Herbivory Dietary specialization 



We thank Ashley Anderton for her adept technical assistance. Support for this research came from funds from Baylor University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Weber State University.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ZoologyWeber State UniversityOgdenUSA
  2. 2.Biology Department, Baylor UniversityWacoUSA
  3. 3.Texas A&M AgriLife ResearchStephenvilleUSA

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