Background and Aims
The herbivore defence system of true grasses (Poaceae) is predominantly based on silicon that is taken up from the soil and deposited in the leaves in the form of abrasive phytoliths. Silicon uptake mechanisms can be both passive and active, with the latter suggesting that there is an energetic cost to silicon uptake. This study assessed the effects of plant-available soil silicon and herbivory on the competitive interactions between the grasses Poa annua, a species that has previously been reported to accumulate only small amounts of silicon, and Lolium perenne, a high silicon accumulator.
Plants were grown in mono- and mixed cultures under greenhouse conditions. Plant-available soil silicon levels were manipulated by adding silicon to the soil in the form of sodium silicate. Subsets of mixed culture pots were exposed to above-ground herbivory by desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria).
In the absence of herbivory, silicon addition increased biomass of P. annua but decreased biomass of L. perenne. Silicon addition increased foliar silicon concentrations of both grass species >4-fold. Under low soil-silicon availability the herbivores removed more leaf biomass from L. perenne than from P. annua, whereas under high silicon availability the reverse was true. Consequently, herbivory shifted the competitive balance between the two grass species, with the outcome depending on the availability of soil silicon.
It is concluded that a complex interplay between herbivore abundance, growth–defence trade-offs and the availability of soil silicon in the grasses' local environment affects the outcome of inter-specific competition, and so has the potential to impact on plant community structure.