, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 83-92

Population and leaf-level variation of iridoid glycosides in the invasive weed Verbascum thapsus L. (common mullein): implications for herbivory by generalist insects

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Abstract

Plant–insect interactions, which are strongly mediated by chemical defenses, have the potential to shape invasion dynamics. Despite this, few studies have quantified natural variation in key defensive compounds of invasive plant populations, or how those defenses relate to levels of herbivory. Here, we evaluated variation in the iridoid glycosides aucubin and catalpol in rosette plants of naturally occurring, introduced populations of the North American invader, Verbascum thapsus L. (common mullein; Scrophulariaceae). We examined two scales that are likely to structure interactions with insect herbivores—among populations and within plant tissues (i.e., between young and old leaves). We additionally estimated the severity of damage incurred at these scales due to insect chewing herbivores (predominantly grasshoppers and caterpillars), and evaluated the relationship between iridoid glycoside content and leaf damage. We found significant variation in iridoid glycoside concentrations among populations and between young and old leaves, with levels of herbivory strongly tracking leaf-level investment in defense. Specifically, across populations, young leaves were highly defended by iridoids (averaging 6.5× the concentration present in old leaves, and containing higher proportions of the potentially more toxic iridoid, catalpol) and suffered only minimal damage from generalist herbivores. In contrast, old leaves were significantly less defended and accordingly more substantially utilized. These findings reveal that quantitative variation in iridoid glycosides is a key feature explaining patterns of herbivory in an introduced plant. In particular, these data support the hypothesis that defenses limit the ability of generalists to feed on mullein’s well-defended young leaves, resulting in minimal losses of high-quality tissue, and increasing performance of this introduced species.