Are effects of forest diversity on insect herbivores mediated by changes in leaf traits?

New paper by Muiruri et al. in New Phytologist explored indirect effects of tree species diversity on herbivory via changes in leaf traits in the Satakunta tree species diversity experiment. We measured 16 leaf traits and leaf damage by four insect guilds (chewers, gall formers, leaf miners and rollers) on silver birch (Betula pendula) trees growing in one‐, two‐, three‐ and five‐species mixtures. A decline in the frequency of birch in mixed stands resulted in reduced leaf area. This, in turn, mediated the reduction in chewing damage in mixed stands. In contrast, associational resistance of birch to leaf miners was not trait‐mediated but driven directly by concurrent declines in birch frequency as tree species richness increased. Our results show that leaf trait variation across the diversity gradient might promote associational resistance, but these patterns are driven by an increase in the relative abundance of heterospecifics rather than by tree species richness per se. Therefore, accounting for concurrent changes in stand structure and key foliar traits is important for the interpretation of plant diversity effects and predictions of associational patterns.

Read the full paper here (open access)