Insect Herbivores Drive Real-Time Ecological and Evolutionary Change in Plant Populations

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Science  05 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6103, pp. 113-116
DOI: 10.1126/science.1225977

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Plant Anti-Insect Armaments

Because individual plants are unable to relocate, they are subject to extreme selection by the insects feeding upon them. One means by which plants suppress herbivory is to produce toxic compounds to deter feeding (see the Perspective by Hare). Agrawal et al. (p. 113) compared pesticide–treated or untreated evening primroses. Over 5 years of pesticide treatment, the production of defensive chemicals in the fruit reduced and flowering times shifted, and the primrose's competitive ability against dandelions improved. Züst et al. (p. 116) examined large-scale geographic patterns in a polymorphic chemical defense locus in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and found that it is matched by changes in the relative abundance of two specialist aphids. Thus, herbivory has strong and immediate effects on the local genotypic composition of plants and traits associated with herbivore resistance.


Insect herbivores are hypothesized to be major factors affecting the ecology and evolution of plants. We tested this prediction by suppressing insects in replicated field populations of a native plant, Oenothera biennis, which reduced seed predation, altered interspecific competitive dynamics, and resulted in rapid evolutionary divergence. Comparative genotyping and phenotyping of nearly 12,000 O. biennis individuals revealed that in plots protected from insects, resistance to herbivores declined through time owing to changes in flowering time and lower defensive ellagitannins in fruits, whereas plant competitive ability increased. This independent real-time evolution of plant resistance and competitive ability in the field resulted from the relaxation of direct selective effects of insects on plant defense and through indirect effects due to reduced herbivory on plant competitors.

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