Geographic patterns of plant-herbivore interactions are driven by soil fertility

Joshua S. Lynn, Jason D. Fridley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Aims: Geographic patterns of the intensity of plant herbivory in relation to climate factors have garnered little general support and appear to be species specific. However, plant-herbivore interactions are also driven by resource availability, such as soil nutrient content, and it remains unclear whether broad-scale variation in soil factors is reflected in herbivore consumption rates across species' ranges. Additionally, we know little of how intraspecific variation in tissue quality associates with edaphic and climatic factors, and how this variation controls herbivore consumption. The resource availability hypothesis (RAH) predicts that plant individuals growing in low-resource environments will have lower leaf nutritional quality and more constitutive defenses, which will result in lower rates of leaf consumption. Methods: We collected leaves from the old-field dominant species, Solidago altissima L., from 20 sites across 10 degrees of latitude in the Eastern USA to determine the percentage leaf area consumed by insect folivores. We obtained soil and climate data for each site, as well as plant functional and defensive traits, including specific leaf area (SLA), leaf carbon:nitrogen (C:N), and trichome density. Important Findings: Although we found no significant latitudinal trend of leaf consumption rate, there was strong evidence that leaf herbivory decreased with leaf C:N and trichome density, which themselves decreased with soil N, supporting our hypothesis that the RAH applies for intraspecific variation across spatial gradients. Additionally, high precipitation seasonality and soil nitrogen predicted decreased herbivory. The results suggest that spatial variation in herbivory can be driven by factors other than herbivore communities and climatic gradients, and that bottom-up processes, where plant traits and soil fertility control leaf consumption, must be incorporated into spatial predictions of herbivory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)653-661
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Plant Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2019


  • biogeography
  • bottom-up controls
  • old fields
  • plant functional and defense traits
  • plant-insect interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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