Aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) Intake and Preference by Mammalian Herbivores: The Role of Plant Secondary Compounds and Nutritional Context

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Journal of Chemical Ecology

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Aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) has evolved a chemical defense system comprised of phenolic glycosides (PG), which effectively deter insect herbivory. However, much less is known about the role of PG and the nutritional quality of the associated plant community on aspen browse susceptibility to mammalian herbivores. In three successive periods during the growing season, we conducted experiments with sheep by offering leaves from two aspen stands with different concentrations of PG (LOW, HIGH) or aspen leaves vs. leaves from a forb (Utah pea, Lathyrus pauciflorus) or a grass (smooth brome, Bromus inermis Leyss.) growing in an aspen understory. Intake of aspen (19 to 35 % PG) was low in all periods (1 to 6 g/Kg0.75 in 2 hr) supporting the notion that aspen’s defense system may contribute to its ecological success. However, lambs ate larger amounts of LOW than of HIGH suggesting that sheep could discriminate between aspen stands with different concentrations of PG, even when both stands were relatively well defended. Concentration of nutrients and chemical defenses in aspen leaves remained fairly stable across the growing season, and preference for aspen increased over the growing season. In contrast, preference for the forb and the grass decreased across the growing season in concert with a decline in the nutritional quality of these plants. The data suggest that nutritional context of aspen and associated forage species drove preference more than contrasts in defense chemistry of aspen. There may be periods of “susceptibility” of aspen use by mammalian herbivores, despite high concentrations of chemical defenses, which can potentially be targeted by management to reduce aspen herbivory.

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