Effects of Simulated and Insect Herbivory on Total and Protein Percipitable Phenolic Concentrations of Two Legumes

Final Report for GS14-133

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2014: $9,040.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Dr. James Muir
Texas A&M AgriLife Research
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Project Information


A comparison of protein precipitable polyphenolic (PPP) concentrations after simulated and insect herbivory suggested that Desmodium paniculatum and Lespedeza cuneata distinguish between the types of herbivory. Both species decreased leaf PPP concentrations as herbivory intensity increased. Protein binding ability of PPP also declined with herbivory intensity, especially when the plant was entirely defoliated.


The purpose of this project was to determine if plant CT concentrations differ among control, simulated and insect herbivory. In a study by Pellissier (2013), physiological responses were recorded when simulated herbivory was applied. Pellissier utilized leaf clipping as well as saliva application from ungulate species and added to studies which distinguished physiological responses to physical damage versus responses from the presence of saliva (2013).


This study focused on condensed tannins, secondary phenolic compounds in plants that are believed to serve as the defensive response to herbivory (Levin, 1971). Condensed tannin deposition changes with ontogeny. Cooper et al. (2014), who focused on panicled tick-clover (Desmodium paniculatum (L.) D.C.; PTC) and sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata (Dum. Cours.) G. Don; SL), found that CT concentration was lowest during the vegetative stage and increased at flowering; however, at seed set, CT concentrations varied between species. The authors hypothesized that this occurred because PTC depends heavily on animals for seed dispersal, while SL does not.


Melanoplus differentialis (differential grasshopper) is common in Texas and is a generalist feeder, known to devastate entire landscapes in a short time (Reinert et al., 2011). It has been observed feeding on SL and PTC and utilized in CT studies (Young and Cantrall, 1955; Hinks et al., 1993).


Studies have been conducted on the relationship between condensed tannins and herbivory, but have not focused on plant response. We hypothesize that the plants will differentiate between simulated and insect herbivory. This knowledge can be used to manipulate CT concentrations in forage crops grown specifically for their anthelmintic or methane-suppression properties.

Project Objectives:

Determine how varying levels of herbivory (simulated and by differential grasshopper) and plant ontogeny affect:

  1. Phenolic concentration of leaves
  2. Nutrient concentration (nitrogen, carbon, and dry matter) of leaves
  3. Dry matter, phenolic and N yield of regrowth


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Materials and methods:

We planted panicled tickclover and sericea lespedeza in pots and placed in a greenhouse with irrigation twice daily by an automatic system, totaling 10mm/d. Plants were blocked by height and randomly assigned six treatments: 50% and 100% mechanical clipping, and adult Melanoplus differentialis density intensities of 0, 5 (Intensity 1), 10 (Intensity 2), and 15 (Intensity 3) grasshoppers per cage (0.0973 m3), each receiving two plants. We acquired grasshoppers in the area surrounding the greenhouse. We maintained grasshopper density by replacing grasshoppers that expired during the experiment. The experiment began when plants reached 30-cm height (26 July).

Plants were defoliated by hand to simulate herbivory. The 50% defoliation intensity was determined by the plane of symmetry through the stem. For insect herbivory, grasshoppers were allowed to feed on the SL for a 24-hr period and on the PTC for a 48-hr period. The difference in duration of exposure to the grasshoppers was necessary due to the greater biomass of PTC vis-à-vis SL. Plants were allowed to regrow for 24 d to achieve sufficient regrowth to provide material for laboratory analyses. Half of each treatment was removed from the study for leaf laboratory analysis. The remaining half was exposed to herbivory once more in the same treatment classification as before. Leaves in the 50% defoliation treatment were removed from the same side as the original exposure. Plants were allowed sufficient time for regrowth and harvested for analyses. Laboratory analyses were conducted as described by Naumann et al. (2014). Analysis of variance was completed using Statistix 10 software (Analytical Software, Tallahassee, FL, USA).

Research results and discussion:

There were differences between simulated and grasshopper herbivory types. Although N was similar for both species, PPP and PB were different between herbivory types.


Panicled tick-clover N concentration was similar between mechanical and grasshopper herbivory, although concentrations within herbivory types were different. Nitrogen concentration increased by 26% and 40%, respectively, across the 50% and 100% simulated defoliation treatments compared to the control but not across the grasshopper treatments (Table 1). While N concentration increased 14% between Intensity 1 and 2, it declined 9% from Intensity 2 to 3.

Nitrogen concentrations were also similar for SL between mechanical and grasshopper treatments. Sericea lespedeza N concentration decreased for most treatments compared to the control, but remained unchanged for the 100% simulated defoliation (Table 2). Within herbivory type, N concentration increased 12% between Intensities 1 and 2 but remained unchanged for Intensity 3. With repeated herbivory, N concentration increased for moderate herbivory (Intensities 1 and 2 and 50% defoliation) but decreased with greater herbivory (Intensity 3 and 100% defoliation).

The increase and subsequent decrease in N concentration with herbivory intensity is consistent with previous studies (Rooke et al. 2007; Schädler et al. 2007; Cooper et al. 2014). We agree with Cooper et al. (2014) that lower N concentration may be due to N mobilization for leaf production (Culvenor and Simpson 1991); greater herbivory intensities result in fewer leaves to photosynthesize, so the plant allocates resources to produce more leaves (Culvenor and Simpson 1991).

Alternatively, the reduction in N could be the result of nutrient stress (Bryant et al. 1993). Since the plants were grown in pots and unfertilized for the season, N was a limited resource outside of any N fixation, which may have been affected by a number of variables, such as exhausted soil nutrients such as P, photosynthetic rates, bacterial genotype, and environmental factors not accounted for by this study (West et al. 2005).

Similar trends between simulated and natural herbivory treatments are consistent with some studies (Lyytik?inen-Saarenmaa 1999) but not others (Baldwin 1990). Likewise, the tendency for SL N concentration to decline with increasing herbivory intensity was consistent with the findings of Cooper et al. (2014), with the exception of the 100% defoliation which was similar to the control. Lower N availability can limit feed efficiency by reducing urea recycling and microbial efficiency in ruminants (Reed 1995) and other forages (Mangan 1988).


Protein Precipitable Polyphenolics (PPP)

Panicled tick-clover PPP concentrations were lower for mechanical herbivory than grasshopper herbivory, with the exception of 50% defoliation which was similar to Intensity 1. Protein precipitable polyphenolic concentration decreased with increasing herbivory intensity (Table1). Within insect herbivory, PPP concentration increased 37% between Intensities 1 and 2 but decreased 12% between Intensities 2 and 3. Similarly, PPP decreased 20% between 50% and 100% defoliation. Protein precipitable phenolic concentration increased among all treatments with repeated herbivory, excluding 100% defoliation, which decreased 75%.

Sericea lespedeza PPP was similar between mechanical and grasshopper treatments for Harvest 1 but not 2. Protein precipitable polyphenolic concentration decreased an average of 20% as herbivory increased regardless of herbivory type (Table 2). Protein precipitable polyphenolic concentration decreased a maximum of 26% from control to Intensity 1 and a minimum of 15% each from Intensity 2 to 3 and from the control to 50% defoliation. Protein precipitable polyphenolics increased from Harvest 1 to 2 for all treatments except Intensity 1 and 50% defoliation, which decreased by 16 and 24%, respectively.

Panicled tick-clover PPP concentrations were inconsistent with a previous study. Cooper et al. (2014) found that PPP concentration increased from unclipped leaves to those submitted to 25% defoliation before declining for the remaining treatments. These results parallel what we observed following the second harvest, but not the first, suggesting that insect defoliation affects naive plants in a different way. Once-stressed regrowth never attained the intensity of the control plant, while repeatedly stressed regrowth remained above the intensity of the control with the exception of major defoliation (grasshopper Intensity 3 and 50% and 100% mechanical defoliation). Donnelly and Anthony (1983) reported greater intensities of tannins in plants repeatedly defoliated than in plants defoliated once. The reduction in PPP concentration with increased defoliation is consistent with a study observing Quercus spp., in which leaf PPP on previously defoliated branches decreased compared to control branches (Faeth et al. 1992).

Sericea lespedeza PPP concentrations following grasshopper herbivory differed from what Cooper et al. (2014) reported for mechanical harvests. Cooper et al. (2014) observed a decrease in leaf PPP concentration between 0 and 25% defoliation followed by an increase under more intense herbivory. This suggests differences in plant response between low intensity natural and simulated herbivory.

An additional simulated herbivory treatment for both species would be required in this study to directly compare my simulated results with Cooper et al. (2014). The decrease in PPP for both species from 50% to 100% defoliation, however, is similar, suggesting that there may be distinctive responses in leaf PPP accumulation for herbivory types. This phenomenon has been supported by other studies (Kessler and Baldwin 2002), including other physiological processes (Baldwin 1988; Kessler and Baldwin 2002) and herbivores (Ward and Young 2002). However, it has also been contradicted by other studies, such as those addressed in the meta-analysis by Nyk?nen and Koricheva (2004).


Protein bound by PPP (PB)

Panicled tick-clover PB was much lower for simulated herbivory than grasshopper herbivory, and 50% defoliation was similar to the control for Harvest 1. Panicled tick-clover PB increased by 17% between grasshopper Intensities 1 and 2 but declined by 14% between Intensities 2 and 3 (Table 1). Simulated treatments also caused a 100% decrease in PB, from the first to the second harvest.

Protein bound by PPP was also lower for SL simulated herbivory treatments than grasshopper herbivory, although all treatments were at least 50% greater among herbivory treatments compared to the control (Table 2). There were no differences in PB between the simulated treatments for the first harvest; concentrations of PPP in leaves submitted to 100% mechanical defoliation, however, declining by 48%, twice as much as for the 50% defoliation.

Panicled tick-clover PB dynamics as a result of herbivory were consistent with those reported by Cooper et al. (2014) for simulated herbivory of PTC and by Alba-Meraz and Choe (2002) for Melanoplus herbivory of other plant species. Protein binding affinity affects ruminant nutrition since it prevents microbial degradation in the rumen (Silanikove et al. 2001; Min and Hart 2003; Pawelek et al. 2008). Panicled tick-clover PB declined following 100% defoliation in this study as well as in that reported by Cooper et al. (2014) corresponding to the costly requirements of making protein-binding compounds (Coley et al. 1985; Kein?nen et al. 1999), since polyphenolic production is reliant on photosynthesis to fix carbon (Bryant et al. 1983; McDonald et al. 1999). These results do not support some hypotheses which predict that more resources are spent on defenses in high intensity herbivory conditions (Janzen 1974; Coley et al. 1985). McDonald et al. (1999) found that increased CO2 availability increases polyphenolic concentrations in certain trees. Starch, a product of photosynthesis (Sharkey 1985), is also positively correlated with certain types of tannins, including CT (Lawler et al. 1997; McDonald et al. 1999). Even in nutrient-rich conditions, CT were much lower in low light (thus low photosynthetic activity) conditions for Eucalyptus spp., possibly mirroring conditions with little to no leaves (Lawler et al. 1997), although severe defoliation increases polyphenolic response in some species (Bryant et al. 1993).

Compared to PTC, SL PB changes as a result of herbivory were inconsistent, with no apparent trends across treatments. For example, both harvests types increased leaf PB concentration between the control and Intensity 1 and decreased between Intensity 1 and 2, but were similar in simulated treatments in Harvest 1 while they decreased between simulated treatments in Harvest 2. Cooper et al. (2014) found that defoliation resulted in less leaf PB than in undefoliated plants, in contrast to responses to both herbivory types in this study. This may be due at least in part to differences in how simulated herbivory treatments were applied (Baldwin 1990). Cooper et al. (2014) removed leaves a pre-measured distance from the top of the plant to simulate ruminant herbivory, while we harvested equally from all heights to simulate grasshopper herbivory as observed in a pilot study at my greenhouse.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Blackmon TK (2015) Effects of simulated and insect herbivory on nitrogen and protein precipitable phenolic concentration of two legumes. Thesis, Tarleton State University.

Blackmon, T., J.P. Muir, D.H. Kattes, B.D. Lambert and R.D. Wittie. 2014. Simulated and insect herbivory effects on protein precipitable phenolic and nitrogen concentrations of two legumes. Proc. ASA-CSSA-SSSA Annual meetings, Long Beach CA, 1-5 November 2014. Abstract 44-26 Poster 125.

Blackmon, T., J. P. Muir, B. Lambert, and D. Kattes. 2014. Simulated and insect herbivory effects on protein precipitable phenolic and nitrogen concentrations of two legumes. p. 36. Proc. Vth International Scientific Symposium for PhD Students and Students of Agricultural Colleges. Bydgoszcz - Inowroc?aw, Poland. 18-20 September. University of Technology & Life Sciences, Bydgoszcz Poland.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This research will aid farmers in understanding how their forages respond to defoliation, whether by mechanical or by animal means. Most importantly, it will encourage them to maintain plant diversity in their pastures, rangeland and wildlife enterprises. Forages high in condensed tannins have both positive and negatives in ruminant production. They can reduce livestock feed efficiency if present in elevated concentrations of biologically active condensed tannins. Recent research, however, indicated that there are more positives than negatives, including suppressing internal and external parasite development, mitigating rumen methane emissions, increasing protein bypass in the rumen and suppressing pest fly larval development in feces. Landowners will have more sustainable and environmentally sound plant/animal ecosystems as they maintain plant diversity that includes condensed tannins.


Areas needing additional study

Future studies should focus on variations in responses to different herbivores and examine plant phenolic response times. These should relate to how ranchers and wildlife managers can apply the information to sustainably intensify productivity on their land.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.