The performance and population dynamics of insect herbivores depend on the nutritive and defensive traits of their host plants1. The literature on plant–herbivore interactions focuses on plant trait mean values2,3,4, but recent studies showing the importance of plant genetic diversity for herbivores suggest that plant trait variance may be equally important5,6. The consequences of plant trait variance for herbivore performance, however, have been largely overlooked. Here we report an extensive assessment of the effects of within-population plant trait variance on herbivore performance using 457 performance datasets from 53 species of insect herbivores. We show that variance in plant nutritive traits substantially reduces mean herbivore performance via non-linear averaging of performance relationships that were overwhelmingly concave down. By contrast, relationships between herbivore performance and plant defence levels were typically linear, with variance in plant defence not affecting herbivore performance via non-linear averaging. Our results demonstrate that plants contribute to the suppression of herbivore populations through variable nutrient levels, not just by having low average quality as is typically thought. We propose that this phenomenon could play a key role in the suppression of herbivore populations in natural systems, and that increased nutrient heterogeneity within agricultural crops could contribute to the sustainable control of insect pests in agroecosystems.
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We thank J. Thaler, J. Rosenheim, A. Agrawal, and S. Ellner for comments on the manuscript; D. Strong, K. Poveda, A. Kessler, S. Schreiber and P. Grof-Tisza for discussions. This work was supported by grants from the Center for Population at the University of California, Davis.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Reviewer Information Nature thanks M. Ayres, B. Inouye, W. Viechtbauer and the other anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Extended data figures and tables
a–c, Number of herbivore species per order (a), mobility of feeding stage (b), and host breadth (c). b, Each mobility level indicates the maximum extent at which the feeding stage of an herbivore commonly moves. For example, species in the ‘plant’ category move within plant individuals but do not typically move between plants. Species within the ‘patch’ category readily move among neighbouring plant individuals but do not typically move between patches of plants. Species in the ‘tissue’ category are restricted to a single organ within an individual plant (for example, leaf or root). Species in the ‘region’ category readily move among plant patches across entire geographic regions. c, Host breadth categories monophagous (mono), oligophagous (oligo), and polyphagous (poly) indicate that an herbivore species feeds on plant species in one genus, plant species across multiple genera within one plant family, and plant species across two or more plant families, respectively. d–h, Number of herbivore performance curves per trait type (d), defence class (e), nutrient class (f), date of publication (g), and study sample size (h).
Diagram summarizes the bootstrapping algorithm used to calculate a distribution of Jensen’s effects for each empirical dataset for herbivore growth. For more details and for differences in methods between growth and survival, see Methods and Supplementary Methods.
Extended Data Figure 3 Jensen’s effects by plant trait type (defences and nutrients) and mobility of the feeding stage.
Defence variance had mean effects near to zero and nutrient variability had generally negative effects regardless of the mobility of the feeding stage of the herbivore species. Species in the ‘plant’ category move within plant individuals but do not typically move between plants. Species within the ‘patch’ category readily move among neighbouring host plants but do not typically move between patches. Species within the ‘region’ category commonly move among host plant patches. Each point is one herbivore species, jittered for visibility. Diamonds and error bars show mean values and 95% confidence intervals. See Supplementary Methods for more details.
Extended Data Figure 4 Jensen’s effects by plant trait type (defences and nutrients) and host breadth.
Defence variance had mean effects near to zero and nutrient variability had generally negative effects regardless of the host breadth of the herbivore species. Oligophagous species (‘oligo’) feed on plant species in multiple genera but are restricted to one plant family. Polyphagous species (‘poly’) feed on plant species across two or more plant families. Each point represents one herbivore species, jittered for visibility. Diamonds and error bars are mean values with 95% confidence intervals. See Supplementary Methods for more details.
a, b, The lack of a relationship between the sample size of a study and its Jensen’s effect for growth (a) or survival (b) suggests that publication bias did not have a major influence on the results. Dashed line shows zero. Solid lines show linear regressions for growth (F1,248 = 0.23, P = 0.63, R2 = 0.0) and survival (F1,203 = 1.04, P = 0.31, R2 = 0.0).
Extended Data Figure 6 Jensen’s effect for each observation by the year of publication for growth and survival.
a, b, The lack of temporal trends in Jensen’s effects for growth (a) or survival (b) suggests that publication bias did not play a major role.
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Wetzel, W., Kharouba, H., Robinson, M. et al. Variability in plant nutrients reduces insect herbivore performance. Nature 539, 425–427 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature20140
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