Successional changes in plant resistance and tolerance to herbivory

Alyssa S. Hakes, Florida State University
James T. Cronin, Louisiana State University


Despite considerable research on plant defenses, we know very little about how temporal changes in the environment may influence resistance and tolerance levels, or the costs and benefits of these defense strategies for long-lived plant species. We hypothesized that, in successional habitats, predictable environmental changes should favor strong plasticity in defense phenotypes and that the costs, benefits, and levels of tolerance and resistance will change with environmental context. Using a widely distributed, old-field perennial, late goldenrod (Solidago altissima), we conducted a field experiment to test these predictions. We planted goldenrod genets exhibiting varying levels of resistance and tolerance into three earlysuccessional and three late-successional fields (approximately three and 15 years in age, respectively) and experimentally measured resistance and tolerance levels and their associated costs and selection coefficients. We found a significant effect of successional stage but no effect of genotype or stage-genotype interaction on defense levels. Genets planted in earlysuccessional fields appeared to be more resistant and less tolerant to herbivory than those same genets planted in late-successional fields. There were significant trade-offs between resistance and tolerance in early-successional fields but not in late-successional fields. Each late-successional field exhibited a significant cost or selection gradient for resistance, but there was no general pattern of resistance costs or selection gradients specific to a successional stage class. In contrast, there was evidence of stage-specific costs of tolerance; late-successional fields exhibited significant costs of tolerance whereas early-successional fields did not. There was no evidence of direct selection for or against tolerance in either stage. Our results suggest that defense phenotypes might change in qualitative ways during succession. High resistance in early stages may be attributed to associational effects of the early-successional community, reducing the probability of damage, and despite a cost of tolerance in late stages, tolerance may be beneficial in mitigating the effects of both herbivory and environmental stresses (i.e., low light availability) that limit fitness in these fields. This study provides experimental evidence that succession can strongly influence defense phenotypes and promote temporal variability in relative resistance and tolerance levels. © 2012 by the Ecological Society of America.