In different ecosystems herbivores highly prefer particular plant species. This is often explained in a stoichiometric framework of nutrient-based plant adaptations to herbivory. We hypothesize that such super-palatability can also arise as an evolutionary by-product of osmoregulatory adaptations of plants to stressful environmental conditions, as salinity, drought and cold. Here, we investigate in a coastal salt marsh why some plant species are highly preferred by migratory brent geese Branta bernicla bernicla in spring while others are avoided. This salt marsh is an important spring staging site for the geese. Sufficient energy storage in a short period is critical to enable their northward migration to Siberia and subsequent reproduction. We test if geese prefer plants that balance their internal osmotic potential with the saline environment through energy-rich soluble sugars over plant species that use (compartmentalized) salts for this. We find that plant nitrogen and acid detergent fiber content, classic predictors of herbivore preferences, poorly explain which plants the geese prefer. Instead, plant species that are highly preferred by the geese adapt to salinity by high soluble sugar concentrations while avoided species do this by high plant salt concentrations. Thus, the type of osmoregulatory adaptation to stress displayed by different plant species is a good predictor for the food preference of geese on this salt marsh. We suggest that variation in other types of osmoregulation-based stress adaptations, as plant cold adaptations in tundras and plant drought adaptations in savannas, have similar important consequences for trophic interactions. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Fokkema, W., de Boer, W., van der Jeugd, H. P., Dokter, A., Nolet, B. A., De Kok, L. J., Elzenga, J. T. M., & Olff, H. (2016). The nature of plant adaptations to salinity stress has trophic consequences. Oikos, 125(6), 804-811. https://doi.org/10.1111/oik.02757