Variability in plant nutrients reduces insect herbivore performance

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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.

Author information


  1. Department of Entomology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • William C. Wetzel
  2. Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, Davis, California 95616, USA

    • William C. Wetzel
    • , Heather M. Kharouba
    •  & Moria Robinson
  3. Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada

    • Heather M. Kharouba
  4. Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, Davis, California 95616, USA

    • Marcel Holyoak
  5. Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California, Davis, Davis, California 95616, USA

    • Richard Karban


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W.W. conceived the project. All authors contributed to the development of the question, interpreted the results, and commented on the manuscript. W.W., H.K., and M.R. collected data and assembled the database. W.W. and M.H. developed the methods. W.W. and R.K. wrote the manuscript. M.R., H.K., and W.W. made the figures.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William C. Wetzel.

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.

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables, a Supplementary Discussion and Supplementary References.