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Silica as a Defense against Herbivory and a Growth Promotor in African Grasses

McNaughton, S. J., Tarrants, J. L., McNaughton, M. M., Davis, R. D.
Ecology 1985 v.66 no.2 pp. 528-535
animals, chlorophyll, defoliation, ecosystems, energy, feces, flowering, food webs, forage, grasses, grasslands, grazing intensity, growing season, growth promotion, herbivores, hydroponics, intercellular spaces, laboratory experimentation, leaf blade, national parks, pH, plastics, primary productivity, silica, soil, tissues
Grasses and dung were collected in the Serengeti National Park and analyzed for silica content by wet ashing. Grasses from grasslands differing in the grazing intensities experienced were grown in the laboratory in a factorial experiment to determine factors controlling tissue silicification. Concentrations of silica in tissues of plants collected in the field were higher than have been reported for any other plants abundant in grazing ecosystems. Silica contents in the field were higher in more heavily grazed grasslands and in tissue produced earlier in the growing season. Animal dung contained substantial quantities of silica. Laboratory experiments indicated that tissue silicification was increased by defoliation, was higher in plants from more heavily grazed grasslands, varied in different organs and species in patterns confirming current hypotheses about plant defense, and was affected by the availability of soluble silica in the nutrient medium. Silica in the nutrient medium promoted the yield of unclipped plants substantially. Total yield was 18% higher than that of control plants, although hydroponic experiments with solutions prepared and handled in plastic indicated that silica was not a growth requirement, except, perhaps, at the ecologically unrealistic concentrations that might result from reagent contamination. Yield stimulation by silica was differentially distributed among organs, tending to promote photosynthetically active tissues and crowns. Flowering of one species was promoted by silica. Leaves of silica—fed plants were larger. Leaf blade chlorophyll concentrations were 15% higher in silica—fed plants from the more heavily grazed grasslands. The results suggest that complex patterns of grass silicification had a role in the radiation of grazing animals and grasses and may contribute to maintaining the biotic diversity of contemporary grassland—savanna ecosystems by influencing the partitioning of forage species and organs among grazers. Growth promotion by silica may be due to the substitution of mineral support for carbon—based support associated with the deposition of silica in the intercellular spaces of aerial tissues. Since soils of the Serengeti region commonly have pH levels above neutrality, where the availability of silica is low, silica supply could influence primary productivity and resultant energy and nutrient flow through the trophic web in the native environments of the plants.