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How plants may benefit from their consumers: leaf-cutting ants indirectly improve anti-herbivore defenses in Carduus nutans L

Farji-Brener, Alejandro G.
Plant ecology 2007 v.193 no.1 pp. 31-38
Acromyrmex, Carduus nutans, leaf-cutting ants, leaves, phytophagous insects, plant damage, planting, risk, seedlings, soil, solid wastes
Although herbivores often have a negative impact on plant fitness, sometimes plants may benefit from their consumers. However, these positive interactions usually occur as a result of plant damage (e.g., overcompensation, defense induction). I present evidence of a novel way by which plants may benefit from their consumers without being eaten. Plants of Carduus nutans increased their physical defenses when grown in external refuse dumps of the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex lobicornis. Seedlings planted in refuse exhibited longer spines and tougher leaves than those planted in control soils. Pick-up assays with entire leaves and leaf discs demonstrated that these enhanced physical defenses prevented leaf-cutting ant harvest. Additionally, plants established in refuse dumps showed fewer insect herbivory than those in non-nest soils. The nutrient-rich refuse dump appeared to reduce the stage at which leaves are tender and thus more vulnerable to herbivory. This is the first case where plants may benefit from insect herbivores via waste products without the cost of being eaten. This illustrates how plants may plastically respond to reliable cues of the risk of herbivory.