, Volume 63, Issue 1, pp 90-105

The abundance of invertebrate herbivores in relation to the availability of nitrogen in stressed food plants

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Summary

It has previously been postulated that when plants are stressed by certain changes in patterns of weather they become a better source of food for invertebrate herbivores because this stress causes an increase in the amount of nitrogen available in their tissues for young herbivores feeding on them. And this may cause outbreaks of such phytophagous invertebrates.

Evidence is now presented that a similar physiological mechanism appears to operate when a wide variety of apparently unrelated environmental factors impinge on plants or parts of plants in such a way as to perturb their metabolism. A broken branch, lightning strike, fire, nutrient deficiencies or an otherwise adverse site; all may have this effect. With the advent of modern man the available agencies increase and diversify to include pesticides, irradiation and air pollutants.

One common metabolic response by plants to all such agents impinging on them seems to be equivalent to that found in senescing plant tissues — the breakdown and mobilization of nitrogen in soluble form away from the senescing/stressed tissues. Young herbivores which chance to feed on such stressed/senescing tissues have a greater and more readily available supply of nitrogen in their food than they would have had if feeding on unstressed plants. As a result many more of them survive, and there is an increase in abundance of their kind. Such increases may be quite localised and short-lived or more widespread and persistent, depending on the extent and duration of the stress experienced by the plants. And in the face of this improved nutrition and survival of the very young, predators and parasites seem to have only a minor influence on subsequent changes in abundance of their herbivorous prey.

Another effect of increased mobilization of nitrogen in stressed plants is an increase in the quantity of the seed that they set. This has led to the conclusion that increased abundance of some species of birds at such times is due to a greater supply of seeds as winter food for recent fledglings. But it may be that the increased abundance is due to the synchronous increase in phytophagous insects providing a richer source of protein food for laying hens and growing nestlings.