, Volume 19, Issue 6, pp 1047-1056

How herbivores track variable environments: Response to variability of phytotoxins

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Abstract

The concentration of toxins in plants can vary with plant phenology and environmental factors. Changes in toxicity may or may not be associated with changes in plant flavor. These factors may make it difficult for herbivores to avoid toxic plants. We conducted three experiments concerning animals' ability to detect toxins. In experiment 1, we examined whether animals familiar with a tastable toxin on food would adjust intake when toxin concentrations changed. Lambs were initially offered oats with either a low, medium, or high concentration of lithium chloride (LiCl; a salty-tasting toxin). Later, when all lambs were offered oats with the medium concentration of LiCl, lambs that were conditioned with the low LiCl concentration decreased intake while lambs conditioned with the high LiCl concentration increased intake. In experiment 2, we examined flavor aversions formed when animals sampled food with two flavor levels prior to illness. Lambs initially ate the same amount of barley with a low and with a high concentration of either sodium saccharin (a sweet flavor) or aluminum sulfate (a bitter flavor). Lambs then received a mild dose of LiCl. Later, when lambs were offered a choice between barley with either a low or high flavor concentration, lambs preferred the barley with the low flavor concentration. Experiment 3 examined how variable toxicity affected intake when the flavor remained constant. Lambs were initially offered oregano-flavored barley and then received a dose of LiCl. Lambs received either a medium dose, a high dose, or a dose that varied randomly among low, medium, or high amounts of LiCl. Lambs in the medium dose group ate more oregano-flavored barley at the end of the trial than did lambs in either of the other groups.

This research was supported by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322. Approved as journal paper No. 4337. The research methods were approved by the Animal Care and Use Committee at Utah State University.