Field surveys were conducted to test whether plants deploy structural defences in ways that match the distribution of megaherbivores. In Western Australian scrublands, where adult plants are within the reach of megaherbivores, structural defences increased vertically and were deployed preferentially by adult plants. Conversely, in woodlands of Eastern Australia and California, where adult plants grow above the reach of megaherbivores, structural defences decreased vertically. Populations of closely-related taxa on offshore islands exhibited significant reductions in defence in the absence of megaherbivores. The results also demonstrate that island plant taxa can evolve vertical changes in defence after colonizing continents, where they are exposed to megaherbivores. Overall, the results of the present study illustrate a complex array of spatial patterns in plant defence that match the distribution and foraging behaviour of large mammals. When interpreted alongside previous work demonstrating similar spatial patterns in other types of plant defence, the results may help to unify our understanding of how megaherbivores have shaped the evolution of plant form and function. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2014, 111, 38–48.