Landscape variation in defense traits along gradients of multiple resources in a tropical savanna plant

Neha Mohanbabu, Michiel P. Veldhuis, Dana Jung, Mark E. Ritchie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many plant species are widely distributed and consequently are exposed to multiple abiotic factors and diverse herbivores, each of which may distinctly affect the magnitude of different defense traits. Alternative theories for optimal allocation to plant defense traits predict both positive and negative associations between magnitude of defense and resource availability. These predictions may apply even within species. This suggests potential for a single species' patterns of association of defense traits and resources to vary with both the type of defense and identity of resource, but relatively few studies have explored intraspecific variation in multiple defense traits along several resource gradients simultaneously. In order to address this gap, especially in an ecosytem dominated by large mammalian herbivores, we assessed relationships between multiple resources (rainfall, soil N, and soil P) and plant defense traits (prickle density, phenolics, and lignin content) using a widely distributed tropical savanna herb, Solanum incanum, growing in naturally occuring resource gradients within the Serengeti National Park. We found substantial intraspecific variation in all three defense traits across sites (n = 43). Variation in prickle density was positively associated with rainfall and soil P, but not soil N. In contrast to prickle density, phenolics and lignin were uncorrelated with all three resource gradients. This independent association of soil P with a carbon-based defense, prickle density, suggests potential for resources that are not components of defenses to influence allocation to defense traits. Such influence may reflect association between resource and herbivore abundance and/or preference. These varied patterns in resource–defense associations further emphasize the tremendous variation in anti-herbivore traits which may be influenced by different plant resources and highlight the need to consider multiple resource gradients in understanding evolution of plant traits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere09909
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2023


  • intraspecific variation
  • mammal herbivory
  • multiple resources
  • phosphorus
  • physical defense

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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