Silica defences in grasses have recently been suggested to be a potential driver of vole population dynamics. However, the ability of grasses to induce silica in response to herbivory has not been tested in northern ecosystems where small rodents are important herbivores.
We conducted a large-scale field experiment in subarctic tundra using three river catchments differing in herbivore densities, and examined the effects of small rodent and/or reindeer exclusion on leaf silica levels in five grass species (Avenella flexuosa, Anthoxanthum nipponicum, Calamagrostis phragmitoides, Deschampsia cespitosa and Phleum alpinum). We also conducted a greenhouse experiment using three of these species (A. flexuosa, A. nipponicum and D. cespitosa) and Festuca ovina to determine whether intraspecific genotypic variation affects baseline silica concentrations and the capacity to induce silica in response to simulated grazing. Baseline leaf silica concentrations and silica induction varied with plant species in both experiments, with catchment in the field experiment and with genotype in the greenhouse experiment. These findings show that the allocation to silica defences in grasses is highly variable, and suggest that the combined effects of grazing pressure, plant species and intraspecific genotypic differences are likely to determine the circumstances under which silica induction may be an optimal defence strategy. A better understanding of the interplay between grazing and other factors influencing silica induction is necessary to interpret the role of silica in plant–herbivore interactions.