Consequences of the interaction between nutrients and plant secondary metabolites on herbivore selectivity: benefits or detriments for plants?


  • Juan J. Villalba,

  • Frederick D. Provenza,

  • J. P. Bryant

J. J. Villalba, F. D. Provenza and J. P. Bryant, Dept of Rangeland Resources, Utah State Univ., Logan, UT 84322-5230, USA (


Concentrations of nutrients and plant secondary metabolites (PSM) vary temporally and spatially, creating a multidimensional feeding environment. Interactions between nutrients and PSM are poorly understood because research has relied largely on studying the isolated effects of nutrients or PSM on foraging behavior. Nevertheless, their interactions can influence food selection and the dynamics of plant communities. Our objective was to explore how interactions between nutrients and PSM influence food selection. For 7 d, three groups of lambs received intraruminal infusions of three different doses of a PSM (0=Control; low and high) and 2 h later they were offered two foods that contained either low (high in energy) or high (high in protein) protein/energy ratios. The foods were offered 7 d before (baseline) and 7 d after PSM infusions. We conducted five trials each with a different PSM- terpenoids, cyanogenic glycosides, sodium nitrate, quebracho tannin, and lithium chloride. Lambs consistently preferred the food high in energy to the food high in protein, but toxins modified the degree to which this preference was manifest. Terpenoids, nitrate, and lithium chloride depressed intake of the food high in energy. Cyanogenic glycosides had the opposite effect, and at higher doses they depressed intake of the food high in protein. Tannins enhanced intake of the food high in energy at lower doses and they depressed its ingestion at higher doses. Thus, PSM selectively depressed or enhanced intake depending on the macronutrient composition of the foods. These results imply that the probability of a plant being eaten will depend not only on its chemical defenses but also on the quantity and quality of nutrients in the plant and its neighbors, and that the ability of herbivores to learn associations between nutrients and PSM may have a substantial impact on the way herbivores regulate ecosystem processes.