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Intraspecific variation in plant economic traits predicts trembling aspen resistance to a generalist insect herbivore

  • Plant-microbe-animal interactions – original research
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Patterns of trait expression within some plant species have recently been shown to align with the leaf economics spectrum paradigm. Resistance to herbivores is also expected to covary with leaf economics traits. We selected 36 mature Populus tremuloides genotypes in a common garden to assess whether aspen leaf economics patterns follow those observed among species globally. We also evaluated leaf economics strategies in the context of insect resistance by conducting bioassays to determine the effects of plant traits on preference and performance of Lymantria dispar. We found that: (1) intraspecific trait patterns of P. tremuloides parallel those exhibited by the interspecific leaf economics spectrum, (2) herbivores preferred leaves from genotypes with resource-acquisitive strategies, and (3) herbivores also performed best on genotypes with resource-acquisitive strategies. We conclude that a leaf economics spectrum that incorporates defense traits is a useful tool for explaining intraspecific patterns of variation in plant strategies, including resistance to herbivores.

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Data availability

The datasets generated in this research are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request and at the dryad link included in the supplemental information section.

Code availability

The code used to analyze these data is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank Chris Cole and Mark Zierden for assistance with chemical analyses and Chris Cole and Jenn Riehl for genotype verification. S. Jaeger’s work was supported by a UW Holstrom Environmental Research Fellowship. Comments from Colin Orians, Carlos Ballaré, and two anonymous reviewers improved the manuscript.


This research was funded by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grants 2016-67013-25088 and WIS01651.

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Authors and Affiliations



CJM, SJJ, and RLL conceived and designed the experiments. RLL secured funding. CJM and SJJ conducted fieldwork, laboratory work, and analyzed the data. CJM and RLL wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Clay J. Morrow.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Additional information

Communicated by Colin Mark Orians.

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Morrow, C.J., Jaeger, S.J. & Lindroth, R.L. Intraspecific variation in plant economic traits predicts trembling aspen resistance to a generalist insect herbivore. Oecologia 199, 119–128 (2022).

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