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Open Access Commentary

Troublesome toxins: time to re-think plant-herbivore interactions in vertebrate ecology

Robert K Swihart1*, Donald L DeAngelis2, Zhilan Feng3 and John P Bryant4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA

2 US Geological Survey and Department of Biology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida 33124, USA

3 Department of Mathematics, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA

4 Box 306, Cora, Wyoming 82825, USA

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BMC Ecology 2009, 9:5  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-9-5

Published: 24 February 2009

Abstract

Earlier models of plant-herbivore interactions relied on forms of functional response that related rates of ingestion by herbivores to mechanical or physical attributes such as bite size and rate. These models fail to predict a growing number of findings that implicate chemical toxins as important determinants of plant-herbivore dynamics. Specifically, considerable evidence suggests that toxins set upper limits on food intake for many species of herbivorous vertebrates. Herbivores feeding on toxin-containing plants must avoid saturating their detoxification systems, which often occurs before ingestion rates are limited by mechanical handling of food items. In light of the importance of plant toxins, a new approach is needed to link herbivores to their food base. We discuss necessary features of such an approach, note recent advances in herbivore functional response models that incorporate effects of plant toxins, and mention predictions that are consistent with observations in natural systems. Future ecological studies will need to address explicitly the importance of plant toxins in shaping plant and herbivore communities.