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Animals and Plants: Herbivory

The Role of Seed Plants

Without seed plants, life as we know it would not be possible. Plants play a key role in the maintenance of terrestrial ecosystems through stabilization of soils, cycling of carbon, and climate moderation. Large tropical forests release oxygen and act as carbon dioxide sinks. Seed plants provide shelter to many life forms, as well as food for herbivores, thereby indirectly feeding carnivores. Plant secondary metabolites are used for medicinal purposes and industrial production.

Animals and Plants: Herbivory

Coevolution of flowering plants and insects is a hypothesis that has received much attention and support, especially because both angiosperms and insects diversified at about the same time in the middle Mesozoic. Many authors have attributed the diversity of plants and insects to pollination and herbivory, or consumption of plants by insects and other animals. This is believed to have been as much a driving force as pollination.

Coevolution of herbivores and plant defenses is observed in nature. Unlike animals, most plants cannot outrun predators or use mimicry to hide from hungry animals. A sort of arms race exists between plants and herbivores. To “combat” herbivores, some plant seeds—such as acorn and unripened persimmon—are high in alkaloids and therefore unsavory to some animals. Other plants are protected by bark, although some animals developed specialized mouth pieces to tear and chew vegetal material. Spines and thorns (see the figure below) deter most animals, except for mammals with thick fur, and some birds have specialized beaks to get past such defenses.

 Photo A shows a green cactus. It is covered in clusters of long, slender spines that are pale white and have visible sharp points. Photo B shows a green fuzzy stem with several short green thorns protruding from it.

(a) Spines and (b) thorns are examples of plant defenses. (credit a: modification of work by Jon Sullivan; credit b: modification of work by I. Sáček, Sr.)

Herbivory has been used by seed plants for their own benefit in a display of mutualistic relationships. The dispersal of fruit by animals is the most striking example. The plant offers to the herbivore a nutritious source of food in return for spreading the plant’s genetic material to a wider area.

An extreme example of collaboration between an animal and a plant is the case of acacia trees and ants. The trees support the insects with shelter and food. In return, ants discourage herbivores, both invertebrates and vertebrates, by stinging and attacking leaf-eating insects.

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