Plant toxicity, adaptive herbivory, and plant community dynamics

Zhilan Feng, Rongsong Liu, Donald L. Deangelis, John P. Bryant, Knut Kielland, F. Stuart Chapin, Robert K. Swihart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


We model effects of interspecific plant competition, herbivory, and a plant's toxic defenses against herbivores on vegetation dynamics. The model predicts that, when a generalist herbivore feeds in the absence of plant toxins, adaptive foraging generally increases the probability of coexistence of plant species populations, because the herbivore switches more of its effort to whichever plant species is more common and accessible. In contrast, toxin-determined selective herbivory can drive plant succession toward dominance by the more toxic species, as previously documented in boreal forests and prairies. When the toxin concentrations in different plant species are similar, but species have different toxins with nonadditive effects, herbivores tend to diversify foraging efforts to avoid high intakes of any one toxin. This diversification leads the herbivore to focus more feeding on the less common plant species. Thus, uncommon plants may experience depensatory mortality from herbivory, reducing local species diversity. The depensatory effect of herbivory may inhibit the invasion of other plant species that are more palatable or have different toxins. These predictions were tested and confirmed in the Alaskan boreal forest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)534-547
Number of pages14
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 2009


  • Adaptive foraging
  • Boreal forest
  • Functional response
  • Herbivory
  • Mammalian herbivores
  • Plant competition
  • Plant toxin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Chemistry


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