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Physical defences wear you down: progressive and irreversible impacts of silica on insect herbivores

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JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
DatePublished - Jan 2009
Issue number1
Volume78
Number of pages11
Pages (from-to)281-291
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Silica in the leaves of grasses can act as a defence against both vertebrate and invertebrate herbivores. The mechanisms by which silica affects herbivore performance are not well characterized. Here we expose an insect herbivore Spodoptera exempta to high-silica diets and test two mechanisms by which silica has been proposed to act as a defence. First, that silica reduces the digestibility of leaves and second, that silica causes wear to insect mandibles, both of which could potentially impact on herbivore performance.

Silica reduced the efficiency with which S. exempta converted ingested food to body mass and the amount of nitrogen absorbed from their food, leading to reduced insect growth rates. The measure of how efficiently herbivores utilize digested food (ECD) was unaffected by silica.

These effects occurred even with short-term exposure to silica-rich diets, but they also increased markedly with the duration of exposure and affected late instars more than early instar larvae. This appears to be due to the progressive impacts of silica with longer exposure times and suggests that herbivores cannot adapt to silica defences, nor do they develop a tolerance for silica with age.

Exposure to silica-rich diets caused increased mandible wear in S. exempta. This effect was extremely rapid, occurring within a single instar, further reducing feeding efficiency and growth rates. These effects on insect growth and feeding efficiency are nonreversible, persisting after the herbivore has switched diets. Up to a third of this residual impact can be explained by the degree of mandible wear caused by previous silica-rich diets.

The impacts of silica on S. exempta larvae were progressive with exposure time and could not be compensated for, even by switching to a different diet. Thus, herbivores cannot easily adapt to physical defences such as silica, suggesting this defence will have major implications for herbivore fitness.

    Research areas

  • dietary mixing, food utilization, herbivory, mandible wear, nutrients, SPODOPTERA-EXEMPTA WALKER, GENERALIST HERBIVORE, MECHANICAL DEFENSES, FLIGHT PERFORMANCE, AFRICAN ARMYWORM, NATURAL ENEMIES, LEAF BEETLE, GRASSES, GROWTH, LEPIDOPTERA

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