Get access

Grasshoppers cope with low host plant quality by compensatory feeding and food selection: N limitation challenged


  • Daniel Berner,

  • Wolf U. Blanckenhorn,

  • Christian Körner

D. Berner, Agroscope FAL Reckenholz, Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and Agriculture, Reckenholzstr. 191, CH-8046 Zürich, Switzerland ( – W. U. Blanckenhorn, Zoological Museum, Univ. of Zürich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland. – C. Körner, Inst. of Botany, Univ. of Basel, Schönbeinstrasse 6, CH-4056 Basel, Switzerland.


The effect of low host plant nitrogen (N) content on herbivore performance has rarely been studied together with the herbivore's feeding behaviour. We explored this relationship with juvenile Omocestus viridulus (Orthoptera: Acrididae) grasshoppers using fertilized and unfertilized host grasses. Due to lower growth rates, grasshoppers reared on N-poor grasses exhibited slightly prolonged development and smaller adult size, while mortality was similar among the fertilizer treatments. This was found both in the laboratory and in outdoor cages under natural climatic conditions. A parallel analysis of feeding behaviour revealed that the grasshoppers counterbalance N shortage by compensatory feeding, and are capable of selectively feeding among grasses of contrasting nutritional quality when given a choice. This indicates a striking ability of O. viridulus to regulate nutrient intake in the face of imbalanced food sources. Although the species exploits a relatively very poor autotroph nutrient base in the wild, as underpinned by N analysis of natural host grasses and grasshopper tissue, our data suggest that natural food quality imposes no relevant constraint on the herbivore's performance. Our study thus challenges the importance of simple plant-mediated control of herbivore populations, such as N limitation, but supports the view that herbivores balance their intake of N and energy.