The ontogeny of plant defense and herbivory: characterizing general patterns using meta-analysis

Am Nat. 2010 Apr;175(4):481-93. doi: 10.1086/650722.


Defense against herbivores often changes dramatically as plants develop. Hypotheses based on allocation theory and herbivore selection patterns predict that defense should increase or decrease, respectively, across ontogeny, and previous research partly supports both predictions. Thus, it remains unclear which pattern is more common and what factors contribute to variability among studies. We conducted a meta-analysis of 116 published studies reporting ontogenetic patterns in plant defense traits and herbivory. Patterns varied depending on plant life form (woody, herbaceous, grass), type of herbivore (insect, mollusk, mammal), and type of defense trait (secondary chemistry, physical defense, tolerance). In woody plants, chemical defense increased during the seedling stage, followed by an increase in physical defenses during the vegetative juvenile stage. Mammalian herbivores showed a strong preference for mature compared to juvenile tissues in woody plants. Herbs experienced a significant increase in secondary chemistry across the entire ontogenetic trajectory, although the magnitude of increase was greatest during the seedling stage. Correspondingly, mollusks preferred young compared to older herbs. Future research investigating growth/defense trade-offs, allometry, herbivore selection patterns, and ecological costs would shed light on the mechanisms driving the ontogenetic patterns observed.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Food Chain
  • Insecta
  • Mammals / psychology
  • Mollusca
  • Seedlings / growth & development*
  • Seedlings / metabolism