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Light environment and the impacts of foliage quality on herbivorous insect attack and bird predation

Barber, Nicholas A., Marquis, Robert J.
Oecologia 2011 v.166 no.2 pp. 401-409
Quercus, birds, carbon, environmental impact, foods, habitats, host plants, leaves, nitrogen content, phytophagous insects, predation, predators, prediction, saplings, tree damage
Theory predicts that variation in plant traits will modify both the direct interactions between plants and herbivores and the indirect impacts of predators of those herbivores. Light has strong effects on leaf quality, so the impacts of herbivores and predators may differ between plants grown in sun and shade. However, past experiments have often been unable to separate the effects of light environment on plant traits and herbivory from direct effects on herbivores and predators. We first manipulated light availability in an open habitat using a shade cloth pre-treatment to produce oak saplings with different leaf qualities. Leaves on plants exposed to high light were thicker and tougher and had lower nitrogen and water contents, and higher carbon and phenolic contents than leaves on plants under a shade cloth. Then, in the main experiment, we moved all plants to a common shade environment where bird predators were excluded in a factorial design. We measured insect herbivore abundance and leaf damage. Herbivores were significantly more abundant and caused greater leaf damage on sun trees, although these leaf characteristics are usually associated with low-quality food. Bird exclusion did not change herbivore abundance but did increase leaf damage. Contrary to our predictions, the effects of birds did not differ between trees grown in sun and shade conditions. Thus, differences in effects of predators on herbivores and plants between light habitats, when observed, might be due to variation in predator abundance and not bottom-up effects of host plant quality.