Leaf defense syndromes in tropical ferns

  • Rafael de Paiva Farias
  • Lucas Erickson Nascimento da Costa
  • Antônio Fernando Morais de Oliveira
  • Iva Carneiro Leão Barros
  • Klaus MehltreterEmail author


Vascular plants exhibit defense syndromes, a variety of interdependent defensive traits against herbivores, which may considerably differ between plant groups. Although ferns are an abundant component of tropical forest understories, studies of fern–herbivore interactions are scarce, and none has focused on the underlying defense syndromes. To examine the potential defense syndromes of 34 species of tropical ferns of Brazilian forests, we measured ten leaf traits and examined their correlation with parallelly assessed leaf damages. The first three components of categorical PCA were related (1) with SLA, water content, nitrogen, and phosphorus (33.2% of variance); (2) with tannins and saponins, but negatively with trichome density (22.5%); and (3) with phenol concentrations (16.1%). We identified three groups of fern species with similar leaf damages but different defense syndromes: (I) 14 species were of high nutritional quality (= high SLA, N and water content), but a variable trichome density; (II) 4 species were of low nutritional quality, but had high phenol concentrations, and often a high trichome density; and (III) 16 species were of intermediate nutritional quality and had a low trichome density or were glabrous. Most species (groups I and III) including tree ferns used chemical defenses to protect their highly valuable, nutritious leaves. Group II, exemplified by bracken fern, combined however a low nutritional quality with a powerful chemical defense, including high phenol concentrations, and many trichomes. Because leaf damages did not differ significantly among groups, we conclude that each defense syndrome provides species with a similar resistance against their herbivores.


Herbivory Phenols Physical defense Plant–herbivore interactions Plant defense strategy Pteridophytes 



The first author acknowledges financial support by CAPES—Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education within the Ministry of Education of Brazil (scholarship Doutorado Sandwiche no. 88881.132792/2016–01). Jarcilene Silva Almeida Cortez, Mauro Guida dos Santos, and Romulo Simões Cezar Menezes at the Federal University of Pernambuco kindly guided and assisted during laboratory analyses.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departamento de BotânicaUniversidade Federal de PernambucoRecifeBrazil
  2. 2.Red de Ecología FuncionalInstituto de Ecología, A.C.XalapaMexico
  3. 3.Institut für Systematische Botanik und ÖkologieUniversität UlmUlmGermany

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