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Keywords:

  • C/N ratio;
  • herbivory;
  • insect growth rate;
  • leaf consumption;
  • palatability;
  • plant growth;
  • plant secondary compounds;
  • plant species identity;
  • specific leaf weight;
  • Spodoptera littoralis

Abstract

By affecting plant growth and phytochemistry elevated CO2 may have indirect effects on the performance of herbivores. These effects show considerable variability across studies and may depend on nutrient availability, the carbon/nutrient-balance in plant tissues and the secondary metabolism of plants. We studied the responses to elevated CO2 and different nutrient availability of 12 herbaceous plant species differing in their investment into secondary compounds. Caterpillars of the generalist herbivore Spodoptera littoralis were reared on the leaves produced and their consumption and growth rates analysed. Elevated CO2 resulted in a similar increase of biomass in all plant species, whereas the positive effect of fertilization varied among plant species. Specific leaf weight was influenced by elevated CO2, but the effect depended on nutrient level and identity of plant species. Elevated CO2 increased the C/N ratio of the leaves of most species. Caterpillars consumed more leaf material when plants were grown under elevated CO2 and low nutrients. This indicates compensatory feeding due to lower tissue quality. However, the effects of elevated CO2, nutrient availability and plant species identity on leaf consumption interacted. Both the effects of CO2 and nutrient availability on the relative growth rate of the herbivore depended on the plant species. The feeding rate of S. littoralis on plant species that do not produce nitrogen-containing secondary compounds (NCSC) was higher under low nutrient availability. In contrast, in plants producing NCSC nutrient availability had no effect on the feeding rate. This suggests that compensatory feeding in response to low nutrient contents may not be possible if plants produce NCSC. We conclude that elevated CO2 causes species-specific changes in the quality of plant tissues and consequently in changes in the preferences of herbivores for plant species. This could result in changes in plant community composition.