• Asclepias ;
  • Bradysia ;
  • cardenolides;
  • chemical ecology;
  • Glomus ;
  • phylogenetic ecology;
  • plant defence;
  • plant–herbivore interaction


  1. Ecological interactions are complex networks, but have typically been studied in a pairwise fashion. Examining how third-party species can modify the outcome of pairwise interactions may allow us to better predict their outcomes in realistic systems. For instance, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) can affect plant interactions with other organisms, including below-ground herbivores, but the mechanisms underlying these effects remain unclear.
  2. Here, we use a comparative, phylogenetically controlled approach to test the relative importance of mycorrhizal colonization and plant chemical defences (cardenolides) in predicting plant survival and the abundance of a generalist below-ground herbivore across 14 species of milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). Plants were inoculated with a mixture of four generalist AMF species or left uninoculated. After 1 month, larvae of Bradysia sp. (Diptera: Sciaridae), a generalist below-ground herbivore, colonized plant roots.
  3. We performed phylogenetically controlled analyses to assess the influence of AMF colonization and toxic cardenolides on plant growth, mortality and infestation by fungus gnats. Overall, plants inoculated with AMF exhibited greater survival than did uninoculated plants. Additionally, surviving inoculated plants had lower numbers of larvae in their roots and fewer non-AM fungi than surviving uninoculated plants. In phylogenetic controlled regressions, gnat density in roots was better predicted by the extent of root colonized by AMF than by root cardenolide concentration. Taken as a whole, AMF modify the effect of below-ground herbivores on plants in a species-specific manner, independent of changes in chemical defence.
  4. This study adds to the growing body of literature demonstrating that mycorrhizal fungi may improve plant fitness by conferring protection against antagonists, rather than growth benefits. In addition, we advocate using comparative analyses to disentangle the roles of shared history and ecology in shaping trait expression and to better predict the outcomes of complex multitrophic interactions.