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Tree use by koalas in a chemically complex landscape

Abstract

Although defence against herbivores is often argued to be the main action of plant secondary metabolites (PSMs)1, very few examples have demonstrated that intraspecific variation in PSM concentrations influences foraging by wild vertebrate herbivores2,3. Experiments with captive animals often indicate that PSM concentrations influence how much herbivores eat from individual plants3,4,5,6,7, but these experiments do not replicate the subtle trade-offs in diet selection faced by wild animals, which must avoid predators and extremes of weather, interact with conspecifics, and achieve a balanced, nutritious diet, while avoiding intoxication by PSMs. We characterized the foliar chemistry of every tree from two Eucalyptus species available to a population of koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) and considered rates of tree visitation over a ten-year period. We show that visitation rate was most strongly influenced by tree size, but that koalas also visited trees less frequently if the foliage contained either high concentrations of deterrent PSMs known as formylated phloroglucinol compounds, or low concentrations of nitrogen. Consequently, plant chemistry restricts the use of trees by this herbivore, and thus limits the food available to koalas and potentially influences koala populations.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to A. Reed and ‘Friends of the Koalas Inc.’ for the use of their koala data; I. Lawler , K. Handasyde, I. Wallis, R. Bednarik, M. Ebbers and K. Marsh for assistance in the field and laboratory; Phillip Island Nature Park for allowing access to the Koala Conservation Centre and for providing accommodation to B.D.M.; the Australian Research Council for funding to W.J.F.; and C. Johnson, M. Jennions, J. DeGabriel and M. Symonds for comments on the manuscript.

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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Ben D. Moore.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Table S1

    Details of calibration sample sets and calibration equations used to predict chemical attributes of foliage samples using near infrared spectroscopy. (DOC 27 kb)

  2. Supplementary Notes

    A description of the statistical relationships between tree size and foliar chemistry in E. globulus and E. viminalis. (DOC 24 kb)

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Further reading

Figure 1: FPC concentrations in four tree size classes.
Figure 2: Distribution of koala visits across FPC concentrations.
Figure 3: Distribution of koala visits across nitrogen concentrations.

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