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High elevation Plantago lanceolata plants are less resistant to herbivory than their low elevation conspecifics: is it just temperature?



Traits that mediate species interactions are evolutionarily shaped by biotic and abiotic drivers, yet we know relatively little about the relative importance of these factors. Herbivore pressure, along with resource availability and ‘third-party’ mutualists, are hypothesized to play a major role in the evolution of plant defence traits. Here, we used the model system Plantago lanceolata, which grows along steep elevation gradients in the Swiss Alps, to investigate the effect of elevation, herbivore pressure, mycorrhizal inoculation and temperature on plant resistance. Over a 1200 m elevation gradient, the levels of herbivory and iridoid glycosides (IGs) declined with increasing elevation. By planting seedlings at three different elevations, we further showed that both low-elevation growing conditions and mycorrhizal inoculation resulted in increased plant resistance to herbivores. Finally, using a temperature-controlled experiment comparing high- and low-elevation ecotypes, we showed that high-elevation ecotypes are less resistant to herbivory, and that lower temperatures impair IGs deployment after herbivore attack. We thus propose that both lower herbivore pressure, and colder temperatures relax the defense syndrome of high elevation plants.