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Plant eaters, and the flora they eat, give peace a chance

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Posted June 25, 2013
This image reveals the intimacy between the tupelo leafminer living and feeding inside a leaf of the tupelo tree. The larva is seen from behind a single-celled "window" of the leaf epidermis. Credit: Candace Low

This image reveals the intimacy between the tupelo leafminer living and feeding inside a leaf of the tupelo tree. The larva is seen from behind a single-celled “window” of the leaf epidermis. Credit: Candace Low

Plants are often described as being in an evolutionary arms race with the creatures that eat them. Plant eaters develop new strategies for attacking, and plants acquire new ways to defend themselves.

But sometimes, non-conflict may be the best strategy for both plant eaters and plants, according to a new Cornell study that uses ideas from economics and game theory in a computer model. The research was published online June 20 in theAmerican Naturalist.

“The model shows that both the herbivore and the plant develop strategies that optimize their benefits,” said Candace Low, the paper’s lead author and a visiting research scientist in the lab of co-author Stephen Ellner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

“For example, if you have a T-shirt that I want, you may be able to give it up to me when you are done with it,” said Low. “But if I want it when you want it, then we are going to fight for it, and that will be more costly for both of us.”

Take the tupelo leafminer moth (Antipila nysaefoliella), for example, whose eggs are dormant through summer until August when they hatch, and the larvae eat tupelo tree leaves (Nyssa sylvatica). By late summer, the intrinsic value of the leaf has diminished because the growing season is winding down, the leaf’s lifespan is almost over and the shrinking daylight results in less photosynthesis. Since each leaf’s value has become relatively low, the plant benefits by conserving its resources and tolerating more herbivory. It therefore raises its threshold for turning on its chemical defense system, which is triggered when leaves are eaten.

Read more at: Phys.org

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