Direct and indirect root defences of milkweed (Asclepias syriaca): trophic cascades, trade-offs and novel methods for studying subterranean herbivory


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1. Entomopathogenic nematodes can function as indirect defence for plants that are attacked by root herbivores. By releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), plants signal the presence of host insects and thereby attract nematodes.

2. Nonetheless, how roots deploy indirect defences, how indirect defences relate to direct defences, and the ecological consequences of root defence allocation for herbivores and plant biomass are essentially unknown.

3. We investigate a natural below-ground tritrophic system, involving common milkweed, a specialist root-boring beetle and entomopathogenic nematodes, and asked whether there is a negative genetic correlation between direct defences (root cardenolides) and indirect defences (emission of volatiles in the roots and nematode attraction), and between constitutive and inducible defences.

4. Volatiles of roots were analysed using two distinct sampling methods. First, we collected emissions from living Asclepias syriaca roots by dynamic headspace sampling. This method showed that attacked A. syriaca plants emit five times higher levels of volatiles than control plants. Secondly, we used a solid phase micro-extraction (SPME) method to sample the full pool of volatiles in roots for genetic correlations of volatile biosynthesis.

5. Field experiments showed that entomopathogenic nematodes prevent the loss of biomass to root herbivory. Additionally, suppression of root herbivores was mediated directly by cardenolides and indirectly by the attraction of nematodes. Genetic families of plants with high cardenolides benefited less from nematodes compared to low-cardenolide families, suggesting that direct and indirect defences may be redundant. Although constitutive and induced root defences traded off within each strategy (for both direct and indirect defence, cardenolides and VOCs, respectively), we found no trade-off between the two strategies.

6.Synthesis. Constitutive expression and inducibility of defences may trade off because of resource limitation or because they are redundant. Direct and indirect defences do not trade off, likely because they may not share a limiting resource and because independently they may promote defence across the patchiness of herbivore attack and nematode presence in the field. Indeed, some redundancy in strategies may be necessary to increase effective defence, but for each strategy, an economy of deployment reduces overall costs.