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A herbivore is an animal anatomically and physiologically adapted to eating plant material, for example foliage, for the main component of its diet. As a result of their plant diet, herbivorous animals typically have mouthparts adapted to rasping or grinding. Horses and other herbivores have wide flat teeth that are adapted to grinding grass, tree bark, and other tough plant material.


Herbivore is the anglicized form of a modern Latin coinage, herbivora, cited in Charles Lyell's 1830 Principles of Geology.[1] Richard Owen employed the anglicized term in an 1854 work on fossil teeth and skeletons.[1] Herbivora is derived from the Latin herba meaning a small plant or herb,[2] and vora, from vorare, to eat or devour.[3]

Related concepts and terms

Herbivory is a form of consumption in which an organism principally eats autotrophs[4] such as plants, algae and photosynthesizing bacteria. More generally, organisms that feed on autotrophs in general are known as primary consumers. Herbivory usually refers to animals eating plants; fungi, bacteria and protists that feed on living plants are usually termed plant pathogens (plant diseases), and microbes that feed on dead plants are saprotrophs. Flowering plants that obtain nutrition from other living plants are usually termed parasitic plants. There is however no single exclusive and definitive ecological classification of consumption patterns; each textbook has its own variations on the theme.[5][6][7]

Evolution of herbivory

Our understanding of herbivory in geological time comes from three sources: fossilized plants, which may preserve evidence of defence (such as spines), or herbivory-related damage; the observation of plant debris in fossilised animal faeces; and the construction of herbivore mouthparts.[8]

Although herbivory was long thought to be a Mesozoic phenomenon, evidence of it is found as soon as fossils which could show it. Within less than 20 million years after the first land plants evolved, plants were being consumed by insects.[9] Insects fed on the spores of early Devonian plants, and the Rhynie chert also provides evidence that organisms fed on plants using a "pierce and suck" technique.[8]

During the next 75 million years, plants evolved a range of more complex organs, such as roots and seeds. There is no evidence of any organism being fed upon until the middle-late Hole feeding and skeletonisation are recorded in the early Permian, with surface fluid feeding evolving by the end of that period.[8]

Herbivory among terrestrial vertebrates (tetrapods) developed in the Late Carboniferous (307 - 299 million years ago).[10] Early tetrapods were large amphibious piscivores. While amphibians continued to feed on fish and insects, some reptiles began exploring two new food types, tetrapods (carnivory) and plants (herbivory).[10] Carnivory was a natural transition from insectivory for medium and large tetrapods, requiring minimal adaptation. In contrast, a complex set of adaptations was necessary for feeding on highly fibrous plant materials.[10]

Arthropods evolved herbivory in four phases, changing their approach to it in response to changing plant communities.[11]
Another stage of herbivore evolution comes with the evolution of tetrapod herbivores. The first appearance in the fossil record near the Permio-Carboniferous boundary approximately 300 MYA. The earliest evidence of herbivory by tetrapod organisms is seen in fossils of jawbones where dental occlusion (a process in which teeth from the upper jaw come in contact with teeth in the lower jaw) is present. The evolution of dental occlusion led to a drastic increase in food processing associated with herbivory and provides direct evidence about feeding strategies based on tooth wear patterns. Examination of phylogenetic frameworks reveals that dental occlusion developed independently in several lineages through dental and mandibular morphologes, suggesting that the evolution and radiation of tetrapod herbivores occurred simultaneously within various lineages.[12]

Food chain

Herbivores form an important link in the food chain, because they consume plants in order to ingest the carbohydrates produced by a plant with the help of Photosynthesis. Carnivores in turn consume herbivores for the same reason, while omnivores can obtain their nutrients from either plants or animals. Due to a herbivore's ability to survive solely on tough and fibrous plant matter, they are termed the primary consumers in the food cycle(chain). Herbivory, carnivory, and omnivory can be regarded as special cases of Consumer-Resource Systems.[13]

Predator-prey theory (herbivore-plant interactions)

According to the theory of predator-prey interactions, the relationship between herbivores and plants is cyclic.[14] When prey (plants) are numerous their predators (herbivores) increase in numbers, reducing the prey population, which in turn causes predator number to decline.[15] The prey population eventually recovers, starting a new cycle. This suggests that the population of the herbivore fluctuates around the carrying capacity of the food source, in this case the plant.

Several factors play into these fluctuating populations and help stabilize predator-prey dynamics. For example, spatial heterogeneity is maintained, which means there will always be pockets of plants not found by herbivores. This stabilizing dynamic plays an especially important role for specialist herbivores that feed on one species of plant and prevents these specialists from wiping out their food source.[16] Prey defenses also help stabilize predator-prey dynamic, and for more information on these relationships see the section on Plant Defenses. Eating a second prey type helps herbivores’ populations stabilize.[17] Alternating between two or more plant types provides population stability for the herbivore, while the populations of the plants oscillate.[18] This plays an important role for generalist herbivores that eat variety of plants. Keystone herbivores keep vegetation populations in check and allow for a greater diversity of both herbivores and plants.[17] When an invasive herbivore or plant enters the system, the balance is thrown off and the diversity can collapse to a monotaxon system.[17]

Feeding strategies

Herbivores are limited in their feeding ability by either time or resources. Animals that are time limited, meaning they have a limited amount of time to consume the food they need, use a feeding strategy of grazing and browsing, while those animals that are resource limited, meaning that they are limited in the type of food they eat, use a selective feeding strategy. Grazers/browsers tend to be either very large herbivores that need to consume a lot of food in order to maintain their metabolism, or herbivores that have a very short amount of time to eat as much as possible before reproducing, like many generalist insects. Several theories attempt to explain and quantify the relationship between animals and their food, such as Kleiber's law, Holling's disk equation and Marginal Value Theorem.

Kleiber's law explains the relationship between the size of the animal and the feeding strategy it uses. In essence, it says that larger animals need to eat less food, per unit weight, than smaller animals.[19] Kleiber’s law states that the metabolic rate (q0) of an animal is the mass of the animal (M) raise to the 3/4 power:
Therefore, the mass of the animal increases at a faster rate than the metabolic rate.[20]
There are many types of feeding strategies employed by herbivores. Many herbivores do not fall into one specific feeding strategy, but instead employ several strategies and eat a variety of plant parts.

Types of feeding strategies
Feeding Strategy Diet Example
Frugivores Fruit Ruffed lemurs
Folivores Leaves Koalas
Nectarivores Nectar Honey Possum
Granivores Seeds Hawaiian Honeycreepers
Palynivores Pollen Bees
Mucivores Plant fluids, i.e. sap Aphids
Xylophages Wood Termites

Optimal Foraging Theory is a model for predicting animal behavior while looking for food or other resource, such as shelter or water. This model assesses both individual movement, such as animal behavior while looking for food, and distribution within a habitat, such as dynamics at the population and community level. For example, the model would be used to look at the browsing behavior of a deer while looking for food, as well as that deer's specific location and movement within the forested habitat and its interaction with other deer while in that habitat.

This model can be controversial, where critics say that the theory is circular and untestable. Critics say that the theory uses examples that fit the theory, but that researchers do not use the theory when it does not fit the reality.[21][22] Other critics point out that animals do not have the ability to assess and maximize their potential gains, therefore the optimal foraging theory is irrelevant and derived to explain trends that do not exist in nature.[23][24]

Holling's disk equation models the efficiency at which predators consume prey. The model predicts that as the number of prey increases, the amount of time predators spend handling prey also increases and therefore the efficiency of the predator decreases.[25] In 1959, S. Holling proposed an equation to model the rate of return for an optimal diet: Rate (R ) = Energy gained in foraging (Ef)/(time searching (Ts) + time handling (Th))
R = Ef/(Ts + Th)
Where s = cost of search per unit time f = rate of encounter with items, h = handling time, e = energy gained per encounter
In effect, this would indicate that a herbivore in a dense forest would spend more time getting handling (eating) the vegetation because there was so much vegetation around than a herbivore in a sparse forest, who could easily browse through the forest vegetation. Therefore, according to the Holling's disk equation, the herbivore in the sparse forest would be more efficient at eating than the herbivore in the dense forest

Marginal Value Theorem describes the balance between eating all the food in a patch for immediate energy, or moving to a new patch and leaving the plants in the first patch to regenerate for future use. The theory predicts that absent complicating factors, an animal should leave a resource patch when the rate of payoff (amount of food) falls below the average rate of payoff for the entire area.[26] According to this theory, therefore, locus should move to a new patch of food when the patch they are currently feeding on requires more energy to obtain food than an average patch. Within this theory, two subsequent parameters emerge, the Giving Up Density (GUD) and the Giving Up Time (GUT). The Giving Up Density (GUD) quantifies the amount of food that remains in a patch when a forager moves to a new patch.[27] The Giving Up Time (GUT) is used when an animal continuously assesses the patch quality.[28]

Attacks and counter-attacks

Plant defense

A plant defense is a trait that increases plant fitness when faced with herbivory. This is measured relative to another plant that lacks the defensive trait. Plant defenses increase survival and/or reproduction (fitness) of plants under pressure of predation from herbivores.

Defense can be divided into two main categories, tolerance and resistance. Tolerance is the ability of a plant to withstand damage without a reduction in fitness. This can occur by diverting herbivory to non-essential plant parts or by rapid regrowth and recovery from herbivory. Resistance refers to the ability of a plant to reduce the amount of damage it receives from a herbivore. This can occur via avoidance in space or time,[29] physical defenses, or chemical defenses. Defenses can either be constitutive, always present in the plant, or induced, produced or translocated by the plant following damage or stress.[30]

Physical, or mechanical, defenses are barriers or structures designed to deter herbivores or reduce intake rates, lowering overall herbivory. Thorns such as those found on roses or acacia trees are one example, as are the spines on a cactus. Smaller hairs known as trichomes may cover leaves or stems and are especially effective against invertebrate herbivores.[31] In addition, some plants have waxes or resins that alter their texture, making them difficult to eat. Also the incorporation of silica into cell walls is analogous to that of the role of lignin in that it is a compression-resistant structural component of cell walls; so that plants with their cell walls impregnated with silica are thereby afforded a measure of protection against herbivory.[32]

Chemical defenses are secondary metabolites produced by the plant that deter herbivory. There are a wide variety of these in nature and a single plant can have hundreds of different chemical defenses. Chemical defenses can be divided into two main groups, carbon-based defenses and nitrogen-based defenses.

Carbon-based defenses include terpenes and phenolics. Terpenes are derived from 5-carbon isoprene units and comprise essential oils, carotenoids, resins, and latex. They can have a number of functions that disrupt herbivores such as inhibiting adenosine triphosphate (ATP) formation, molting hormones, or the nervous system.[33] Phenolics combine an aromatic carbon ring with a hydroxyl group. There are a number of different phenolics such as lignins, which are found in cell walls and are very indigestible except for specialized microorganisms; tannins, which have a bitter taste and bind to proteins making them indigestible; and furanocumerins, which produce free radicals disrupting DNA, protein, and lipids, and can cause skin irritation.

Nitrogen-based defenses are synthesized from amino acids and primarily come in the form of alkaloids and cyanogens. Alkaloids include commonly recognized substances such as caffeine, nicotine, and morphine. These compounds are often bitter and can inhibit DNA or RNA synthesis or block nervous system signal transmission. Cyanogens get their name from the cyanide stored within their tissues. This is released when the plant is damaged and inhibits cellular respiration and electron transport.

Plants have also changed features that enhance the probability of attracting natural enemies to herbivores. Some emit semiochemicals, odors that attract natural enemies, while others provide food and housing to maintain the natural enemies’ presence (e.g. ants that reduce herbivory[34]). A given plant species often has many types of defensive mechanisms, mechanical or chemical, constitutive or induced, which additively serve to protect the plant, and allow it to escape from herbivores.

Herbivore offense

The myriad defenses displayed by plants means that their herbivores need a variety of techniques to overcome these defenses and obtain food. These allow herbivores to increase their feeding and use of a host plant. Herbivores have three primary strategies for dealing with plant defenses: choice, herbivore modification, and plant modification.

Feeding choice involves which plants a herbivore chooses to consume. It has been suggested that many herbivores feed on a variety of plants to balance their nutrient uptake and to avoid consuming too much of any one type of defensive chemical. This involves a tradeoff however, between foraging on many plant species to avoid toxins or specializing on one type of plant that can be detoxified.[35]

Herbivore modification is when various adaptations to body or digestive systems of the herbivore allow them to overcome plant defenses. This might include detoxifying secondary metabolites,[36] sequestering toxins unaltered,[37] or avoiding toxins, such as through the production of large amounts of saliva to reduce effectiveness of defenses. Herbivores may also utilize symbionts to evade plant defences. For example, some aphids use bacteria in their gut to provide essential amino acids lacking in their sap diet.[38]

Plant modification occurs when herbivores manipulate their plant prey to increase feeding. For example, some caterpillars roll leaves to reduce the effectiveness of plant defenses activated by sunlight.[39]

The adaptation dance

The back and forth relationship of plant defense and herbivore offense can be seen as a sort of "adaptation dance" in which one partner makes a move and the other counters it.[36] This reciprocal change drives coevolution between many plants and herbivores, resulting in what has been referred to as a "coevolutionary arms race".[40] The escape and radiation mechanisms for coevolution, presents the idea that adaptations in herbivores and their host plants, has been the driving force behind speciation.[41][42]

It is important to remember that while much of the interaction of herbivory and plant defense is negative, with one individual reducing the fitness of the other, some is actually beneficial. This beneficial herbivory takes the form of mutualisms in which both partners benefit in some way from the interaction. Seed dispersal by herbivores and pollination are two forms of mutualistic herbivory in which the herbivore receives a food resource and the plant is aided in reproduction.[43]

Impacts of herbivores

The impact of herbivory can be seen in many areas ranging from economics to ecological, and sometimes affecting both. For example, environmental degradation from white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the U.S. alone has the potential to both change vegetative communities through over-browsing and cost forest restoration projects upwards of $750 million annually. Agricultural crop damage by the same species totals approximately $100 million every year. Insect crop damages also contribute largely to annual crop losses in the U.S.[44] Another area in which herbivory greatly affects economics is through the revenue generated by recreational uses of herbivorous organisms, such as hunting and ecotourism. For example, the hunting of herbivorous game species such as white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, antelope, and elk in the U.S. contributes greatly to the billion-dollar annually hunting industry. Ecotourism is another major source of revenue, particularly in Africa, where many large mammalian herbivores such as elephants, zebras, and giraffes help to bring in the equivalent of millions of US dollars to various nations annually.

See also


Further reading

  • Bob Strauss, 2008, The New York Times
  • Danell, K., R. Bergström, P. Duncan, J. Pastor (Editors)(2006) Large herbivore ecology, ecosystem dynamics and conservation Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press. 506 p. ISBN 0-521-83005-2
  • Crawley, M. J. (1983) Herbivory : the dynamics of animal-plant interactions Oxford : Blackwell Scientific. 437 p. ISBN 0-632-00808-3
  • Olff, H., V.K. Brown, R.H. Drent (editors) (1999) Herbivores : between plants and predators Oxford ; Malden, Ma. : Blackwell Science. 639 p. ISBN 0-632-05155-8

External links

  • Herbivore information resource website
  • website of the herbivory lab at Cornell University

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