Climatic Change

, Volume 39, Issue 2–3, pp 455–472 | Cite as

Possible Effects of Climate Change on Plant/Herbivore Interactions in Moist Tropical Forests

  • Phyllis D. Coley


The interactions between plants and herbivores are key determinants of community structure world wide. Their role is particularly important in lowland tropical rain forests where rates of herbivory are higher, plants are better defended chemically and physically, and herbivores have specialized diets. In contrast to the temperate zone, most of the herbivory in the tropics occurs on ephemeral young leaves (>70%), which requires herbivores to have finely tuned host-finding abilities. As a consequence of these tight ecological and evolutionary linkages, the interplay between plants and herbivores in the tropics may be more susceptible to perturbations of climate change.

Increases in global temperature, atmospheric CO2, and the length of the dry season are all likely to have ramifications for plant/herbivore interactions in the tropics. Here I extrapolate from our current and incomplete understanding of the mechanisms regulating plant/herbivore interactions and present a scenario for possible trends under a changing climate. Although elevated CO2 tends to enhance plant growth rates, the larger effects of increased drought stress will probably result in lower growth. In atmospheres experimentally enriched in CO2, the nutritional quality of leaves declines substantially due to a dilution of nitrogen by 10-30%. This response is buffered in plant species associated with nitrogen fixers. Elevated CO2 should also cause a slight decrease in nitrogen-based defenses (e.g., alkaloids) and a slight increase in carbon-based defenses (e.g., tannins). The most dramatic and robust predicted effect of climate change is on rates of herbivory. Lower foliar nitrogen due to CO2 fertilization of plants causes an increase in consumption per herbivore by as much as 40%, and unusually severe drought appears to cause herbivore populations to explode. In areas where elevated CO2 is combined with drying, rates of herbivory may rise 2-4 fold. The frequency of insect outbreaks is also expected to increase. Higher herbivory should further reduce plant growth rates, perhaps favoring plant species that are well-defended or fix nitrogen. The predicted increase in the number of herbivores is primarily due to relaxed pressure from predators and parasitoids. Elevated temperatures may increase herbivore developmental times, affording them partial escape from discovery by natural enemies, and drought appears to decimate parasitoid populations. The expected decline in parasitoid numbers may be due to direct effects of dry season drought or to the relative scarcity of herbivores during that period. As a consequence, the relative abundance of species will change, and overall biodiversity should decline.


Tropical Rain Forest Enhance Plant Growth Reduce Plant Growth Foliar Nitrogen Herbivore Population 


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Phyllis D. Coley
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA

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