Defoliation-induced changes in plant foliage are ubiquitous, though factors mediating induction and the extent of their influence on ecosystem processes such as leaf litter decomposition are poorly understood. Soil nitrogen (N) availability, which can be affected by insect herbivore frass (feces), influences phytochemical induction. We conducted experiments to test the hypotheses that insect frass deposition would (1) reduce phytochemical induction following herbivory and (2) increase the decomposition and nutrient release of the subsequent leaf litter. During the 2002 growing season, 80 Quercus rubra saplings were subjected to a factorial experiment with herbivore and frass manipulations. Leaf samples were collected throughout the growing season to measure the effects of frass deposition on phytochemical induction. In live foliage, herbivore damage increased tannin concentrations early, reduced foliar N concentrations throughout the growing season, and lowered lignin concentrations in the late season. Frass deposition apparently reduced leaf lignin concentrations, but otherwise did not influence leaf chemistry. Following natural senescence, litter samples from the treatment groups were decomposed in replicated litterbags for 18 months at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, NC. In the dead litter samples, initial tannin concentrations were lower in the herbivore damage group and higher in the frass addition group relative to their respective controls. Tannin and N release rates in the first nine months of decomposition were also affected by both damage and frass. However, decomposition rates did not differ among treatment groups. Thus, nutrient dynamics important for some ecosystem processes may be independent from the physical loss of litter mass. Overall, while lingering effects of damage and even frass deposition can therefore carry over and affect ecosystem processes during decomposition, their effects appear short lived relative to abiotic forces that tend to homogenize the decomposition process.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics