To eat or not to eat—relationship of lichen herbivory by snails with secondary compounds and field frequency of lichens

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The biochemical defense of lichens against herbivores and its relationship to lichen frequency are poorly understood. Therefore, we tested whether chemical compounds in lichens act as feeding defense or rather as stimulus for snail herbivory among lichens and whether experimental feeding by snails is related to lichen frequency in the field.


In a no-choice feeding experiment, we fed 24 lichen species to snails of two taxa from the Clausilidae and Enidae families and compared untreated lichens and lichens with compounds removed by acetone rinsing. Then, we related experimental lichen consumption with the frequency of lichen species among 158 forest plots in the field (Schwäbische Alb, Germany), where we had also sampled snail and lichen species.

Important findings

In five lichen species, snails preferred treated samples over untreated controls, indicating chemical feeding defense, and vice versa in two species, indicating chemical feeding stimulus. Interestingly, compared with less frequent lichen species, snails consumed more of untreated and less of treated samples of more frequent lichen species. Removing one outlier species resulted in the loss of a significant positive relationship when untreated samples were analyzed separately. However, the interaction between treatment and lichen frequency remained significant when excluding single species or including snail genus instead of taxa, indicating that our results were robust and that lumping the species to two taxa was justified. Our results imply lichen-feeding snails to prefer frequent lichens and avoid less frequent ones because of secondary compound recognition. This supports the idea that consumers adapt to the most abundant food source.

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