Although patterns of seedling selection by herbivores are strongly influenced by plant age and the expression of anti-herbivore defence, it is unclear how these characteristics interact to influence seedling susceptibility to herbivory. We tracked ontogenetic changes in a range of secondary metabolites (total phenolics, alkaloids and cyanogenic glycosides) commonly associated with seedling defence for nine sympatric British grassland species. Although there was marked variation in concentrations of secondary metabolites between different species, we found a consistent increase in the deployment of phenolics, alkaloids and cyanogenics with seedling age for six of the seven dicotyledonous species examined. The two grass species by contrast exhibited low levels of secondary metabolites across all developmental stages, possibly due to an investment in structural (silica phytoliths) defence. Our results corroborate species-specific patterns of seedling herbivory observed in field studies, and offer some explanation for the relatively high sensitivity to herbivore attack frequently observed for relatively young seedlings compared with their older conspecifics. Our results also support predictions made by the growth–differentiation balance hypothesis regarding ontogenetic changes in resource allocation to anti-herbivore defence for a range of potential chemical defences
Original languageEnglish
Journal publication date2009

ID: 104672