In the harsh environment of the Sonoran Desert, plants must endure extreme heat, limited water sources, and relentless herbivores. A recent study by Duarte and colleagues, published in AoB PLANTS, reveals how certain leaf traits, such as vein architecture and mechanical properties, impact the ability of desert plants to withstand herbivory damage.
Herbivory, or the consumption of plant matter by animals, can significantly affect gas exchange in plants. Gas exchange, which includes processes like photosynthesis, transpiration, and stomatal conductance, is crucial for the survival and growth of plants. However, the specific traits influencing a plant’s ability to recover from herbivory damage remain largely unknown.
To better understand how desert plants respond to herbivory, the researchers simulated herbivory by damaging the midveins of four leaves from each of nine Sonoran Desert species. They then measured the change in photosynthesis, transpiration, and stomatal conductance in the treated leaves compared to the undamaged control leaves. Additionally, the scientists examined the relationship between these changes and the plants’ leaf venation and mechanical traits.
Their findings showed a wide variation in the plants’ ability to recover from herbivory damage, with changes in photosynthesis ranging between +10% and -55%. Surprisingly, they discovered no tradeoff between venation and other structural defences, suggesting that these traits independently contribute to the plant’s overall resilience.
The study also found that the resilience of gas exchange to damage was marginally linked to lower force-to-tear, a measure of a leaf’s mechanical strength, and higher minor vein density. Interestingly, major vein density and reticulation (the extent to which veins form a network) did not seem to influence a plant’s resilience to herbivory damage. This suggests that minor vein pathways might be more relevant for the desert species studied.
One limitation of this research is that it only focused on the mechanical simulation of herbivory. Real-world herbivory also includes chemical and mechanical cues that affect plants’ defence pathways. The study also did not assess the natural frequency of herbivory in these desert plants and the specific types of damage incurred, which could provide a more complete understanding of their defences.
Although the research faced some limitations, it provides valuable insight into the leaf traits that help desert plants survive herbivory damage. This understanding could help predict how plants respond to herbivory in different environments and inform strategies to protect them against pests and other stressors.
Future studies might explore the role of laticifer architecture (networks of cells that produce latex) in latex-producing plants or investigate the effects of herbivory on gas exchange in plants with different water use strategies. Additionally, a more comprehensive examination of herbivory frequency and damage types in desert plants could help clarify the observed patterns and their ecological consequences.
By shedding light on the leaf traits that influence desert plants’ resilience to herbivory, this study offers a glimpse into the complex interplay between plants and their environment. Understanding these relationships is crucial in a world facing increasing environmental pressures and the need for sustainable agriculture.
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Duarte, M.A., Woo, S., Hultine, K., Blonder, B. and Aparecido, L.M.T. (2023) “Vein network redundancy and mechanical resistance mitigate gas exchange losses under simulated herbivory in desert plants,” AoB Plants, 15(2), p. lad002. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plad002.