Trade-off Between Plant Growth and Defense? A Comparison of Sagebrush populations

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We used ecotypic variation in big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) to examine potential trade-offs between inherent growth rate and tolerance or resistance to herbivory. Seeds were obtained from seven geographic populations, and 1,120 seedlings were established in a common garden. In one set of plots, plants were subjected to five treatments: control, regular insecticide spray, moderate browsing, severe browsing, or moderate browsing plus insecticide. Plants in a second set of plots were all untreated, and were used to estimate ambient growth, flower production, and susceptibility to herbivorous insects. In the first growing season, population differences in relative growth rate produced approximately seven-fold variation in mean biomass. Two populations of basin big sagebrush (A. tridentata tridentata) and one population of mountain big sagebrush (A. tridentata vaseyana) grew fastest; those of Wyoming big sagebrush (A. tridentata wyomingensis) showed the slowest growth. Bi-weekly application of insecticide for two growing seasons had no effect on the growth of either browsed or unbrowsed plants. All populations showed compensatory growth (but not overcompensation) in response to browsing, but the degree of compensation was unrelated to inherent growth rate. Similarly, there was no consistent relationship between plant growth rate and flower production in the second growing season. Some insects colonized fast-growing populations more frequently than slow-growing ones, but patterns of insect colonization were species-specific. At the level of geographic populations and subspecies, we found little evidence of a built-in trade-off between inherent growth rate and the ability to tolerate or resist herbivory. Because population ranks for growth rate changed substantially between seasons, attempts to correlate growth and defense characters need to account for differences in the growth trajectories of perennial plants.

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