Many hypotheses have been developed to explain the adaptive nature of insect galls. One of these, the nutrition hypothesis, states that gall formers have advantages over other insects because gall tissue provides a better (higher quality) food source than unmodified tissue. However, this has rarely been experimentally tested. In a test of this hypothesis, we grew plants of Cirsium arvense (L.) Scop. in a factorial design with two main treatments: the addition of nitrogen (to enhance foliar N levels) and of fungicide (to reduce colonization of roots by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi). Mycorrhizal fungi have been shown previously to reduce the N concentration of host plants. Plants were exposed to adult gall flies, Urophora cardui L., and maintained through one season to allow maturation of galls.
Reduction of the percentage mycorrhizal colonization by fungicide resulted in an elevation of total stem N comparable to that achieved by N addition, but gall N concentration remained unchanged in all treatments. Nitrogen application elevated stem N levels when mycorrhizal fungi were present, but application of both compounds together did not result in any increase over either single treatment. Fungicide application resulted in larger galls, which contained more larval chambers, with more live, and heavier, larvae. However, the main effects of N were not significant, as N addition only increased fly performance on plants where mycorrhizas were not reduced.
It is suggested that U. cardui gall inhabitants can manipulate N at an optimal level and thus might conform to a modified version of the nutrition hypothesis. Mycorrhizal colonization might reduce gall fly performance by delaying the appearance, or impairing the quality, of secondary nutritive tissue in the gall. Future tests of the nutrition hypothesis should include a consideration of the plant's mycorrhizal status.