Overcompensation by plants: Herbivore optimization or red herring?
The increased growth rates, higher total biomass, and increased seed production occasionally found in grazed or clipped plants are more accurately interpreted as the results of growth at one end of a spectrum of normal plant regrowth patterns, rather than as overcompensation, herbivore-stimulated growth, plantherbivore mutualisms, or herbivore enhanced fitness. Plants experience injury from a wide variety of sources besides herbivory, including fire, wind, freezing, heat, and trampling; rapid regrowth may have been selected for by any one of the many types of physical disturbance or extreme conditions that damage plant tissues, or by a combination of all of them. Rapid plant regrowth is more likely to have evolved as a strategy to reduce the negative impacts of all types of damage than as a strategy to increase fitness following herbivory above ungrazed levels. There is no evolutionary justification and little evidence to support the idea that plant-herbivore mutualisms are likely to evolve. Neither life history theory nor recent theoretical models provide plausible explanations for the benefits of herbivory.
Several assumptions underlie all discussions of the benefits of herbivory: that plant species are able to evolve a strategy of depending on herbivores to increase their productivity and fitness; that herbivores do not preferentially regraze the overcompensating plants; that resources will be sufficient for regrowth; and that being larger is always ‘better’ than being smaller. None of these assumptions is necessarily correct.