Original Paper

Arthropod-Plant Interactions

, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 125-139

First online:

A quantitative evaluation of major plant defense hypotheses, nature versus nurture, and chemistry versus ants

  • Tara Joy MassadAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Tulane UniversityMax Planck Institute of Biogeochemistry Email author 
  • , R. Malia FincherAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Samford University
  • , Angela M. SmilanichAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Nevada
  • , Lee DyerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Nevada

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Variation in plant secondary metabolite content can arise due to environmental and genetic variables. Because these metabolites are important in modifying a plant’s interaction with the environment, many studies have examined patterns of variation in plant secondary metabolites. Investigations of chemical defenses are often linked to questions about the efficacies of plant defenses and hypotheses on their evolution in different plant guilds. We performed a series of meta-analyses to examine the importance of environmental and genetic sources of variation in secondary metabolites as well as the antiherbivore properties of different classes of defense. We found both environmental and genetic variation affect secondary metabolite production, supporting continued study of the carbon-nutrient balance and growth-differentiation balance hypotheses. Defenses in woody plants are more affected by genetic variation, and herbaceous plant defenses are more influenced by environmental variation. Plant defenses in agricultural and natural systems show similar responses to manipulations, as do plants in laboratory, greenhouse, or field studies. What does such variation mean to herbivores? A comparison of biotic, physical, and chemical defenses revealed the most effective defensive strategy for a plant is biotic mutualisms with ants. Fast-growing plants are most often defended with qualitative defenses and slow-growing plants with quantitative defenses, as the plant apparency and resource availability hypotheses predict. However, we found the resource availability hypothesis provides the best explanation for the evolution of plant defenses, but the fact that there is considerable genetic and environmental variation in defenses indicates herbivores can affect plant chemistry in ecological and evolutionary time.


Herbivory Generalist Genetic variation Phenotype Plant defense Secondary metabolites Specialist