Plant apparency drives leaf herbivory in seedling communities across four subtropical forests

Francesco Martini*, S. Tharanga Aluthwattha, Christos Mammides, Mohammed Armani, Uromi Manage Goodale*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Insect herbivory in natural forests is of critical importance in forest regeneration and dynamics. Some hypotheses that have been proposed to explain variation in leaf consumption by herbivores focus on biotic interactions, while others emphasize the role of the abiotic environment. Here, we evaluated the relative importance of both biotic and abiotic factors in explaining leaf damage on seedlings. We measured the percentage of leaf damage in the understory seedling community of four subtropical forests, covering an elevation gradient from 400 to 1850 m asl. We used fine-scale abiotic (elevation, canopy openness, topography, soil fertility) and biotic (seedling height and number of leaves, neighborhood composition) variables to determine both direct and indirect relationships using linear mixed models and structural equation modeling. We also explored the consistency of our results across the four forests. Taller seedlings experienced higher herbivore damage. Herbivory increased at higher elevations and in areas with higher light availability in one forest, but not in the other three. We found no evidence supporting the effects of biotic interactions on herbivory. Our results, at all levels of analysis, are consistent with the plant apparency theory, which posits that more apparent plants suffer greater attack. We did not find support for hypotheses stressing the role of neighborhood composition on herbivory. Similarly, the abiotic environment does not seem to influence herbivory significantly. We argue that plant apparency, rather than other biotic and abiotic factors, may be the most important predictor of leaf damage in the seedling communities of subtropical forests.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)575-587
Number of pages13
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Elevational gradient
  • Neighborhood composition
  • Resource availability
  • Seedlings
  • Soil nutrients


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