Herbivore preference drives plant community composition

Anne Kempel, Mialy Razanajatovo, Claudia Stein, Sybille B. Unsicker, Harald Auge, Wolfgang W. Weisser, Markus Fischer, Daniel Prati

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Herbivores are important drivers of plant species coexistence and community assembly. However, detailed mechanistic information on how herbivores affect dominance hierarchies between plant species is scarce. Here, we used data of a multi-site herbivore exclusion experiment in grasslands to assess changes in the cover of 28 plant species in response to aboveground pesticide application. Moreover, we assessed species-specific values of plant defense of these 28 species measured as the performance of a generalist caterpillar, and the preference of the caterpillar and a slug species in no-choice and choice feeding experiments, respectively. We show that more preferred species in the feeding experiments were those that increased in cover after herbivore exclusion in the field, whereas less preferred ones decreased. Herbivore performance and several measured leaf traits were not related to the change in plant cover in the field in response to herbivore removal. Additionally, the generalist slug and the generalist caterpillar preferred and disliked the same plant species, indicating that they perceive the balance between defense and nutritional value similarly. We conclude that the growth-defense trade-off in grassland species acts via the preference of herbivores and that among-species variation in plant growth and preference to herbivores drives plant community composition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2923-2934
Number of pages12
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2015


  • Biotic factors
  • Generalist herbivores
  • Growth-defense trade-off
  • Growth-rate hypothesis
  • Herbivore performance
  • Herbivore preference
  • Leaf traits
  • Plant coexistence
  • Plant resistance


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