Background: The effect of herbivory on plant fitness varies widely. Understanding the causes of this variation is of considerable interest because of its implications for plant population dynamics and trait evolution. We experimentally defoliated the annual herb Arabidopsis thaliana in a natural population in Sweden to test the hypotheses that (a) plant fitness decreases with increasing damage, (b) tolerance to defoliation is lower before flowering than during flowering, and (c) defoliation before flowering reduces number of seeds more strongly than defoliation during flowering, but the opposite is true for effects on seed size.
Methodology/principal findings: In a first experiment, between 0 and 75% of the leaf area was removed in May from plants that flowered or were about to start flowering. In a second experiment, 0, 25%, or 50% of the leaf area was removed from plants on one of two occasions, in mid April when plants were either in the vegetative rosette or bolting stage, or in mid May when plants were flowering. In the first experiment, seed production was negatively related to leaf area removed, and at the highest damage level, also mean seed size was reduced. In the second experiment, removal of 50% of the leaf area reduced seed production by 60% among plants defoliated early in the season at the vegetative rosettes, and by 22% among plants defoliated early in the season at the bolting stage, but did not reduce seed output of plants defoliated one month later. No seasonal shift in the effect of defoliation on seed size was detected.
Conclusions/significance: The results show that leaf damage may reduce the fitness of A. thaliana, and suggest that in this population leaf herbivores feeding on plants before flowering should exert stronger selection on defence traits than those feeding on plants during flowering, given similar damage levels.