Herbivory by rodents, lagomorphs and insects may locally constrain woody plant seedling establishment and stand development. Recruitment may therefore depend either upon plant tolerance of herbivory, or low herbivore abundance, during seedling establishment. We tested potential herbivory tolerance by quantifying growth, biomass allocation, and survival of defoliated Prosopis glandulosa seedlings under optimal abiotic conditions in the absence of competition. Realized tolerance was assessed by clipping seedlings of known age grown in the field with and without herbaceous competition.
At 18-d (= ‘young’) or 33-d (= ‘old’) of age, seedlings in the growth chamber were clipped just above the first (cotyledonary) node, above the fourth node, or were retained as non-clipped controls. Potential tolerance to defoliation was high and neither cohort showed evidence of meristematic limitations to regeneration. Clipping markedly reduced biomass production relative to controls, especially belowground, but survival of seedlings defoliated 5 times was still ≥75%. Contrary to expectations, survival of seedlings defoliated above the cotyledonary node 10 times was greater (P<0.10) for ‘young’ (75%) than ‘old’ (38%) seedlings. Under field conditions, survival of defoliated 11-month-old P. glandulosa seedlings was ≤59% after one defoliation and only ≤13% after six defoliations.
Results indicate P. glandulosa is potentially tolerant of repeated shoot removal early in its life cycle. Seedling tolerance to defoliation under field conditions therefore appears dependent upon abiotic stresses or resource limitations rather than a lack of intrinsic adaptations for shoot replacement or a depletion of the seedlings' bud bank. Curtailment of root growth, a consequence of top removal observed in the growth chamber experiment, may reduce the capacity of P. glandulosa seedlings to acquire soil resources needed for meristem activation and shoot growth under field conditions. The importance of resource availability to post-defoliation regeneration was implicated in the field experiment, where survival, shoot elongation, and aboveground productivity of clipped seedlings was greatest in plots without herbaceous interference.
In light of the marked increases in P. glandulosa abundance in grasslands in recent history, our results suggest that (1) utilization of Prosopis seedlings by herbivores may be infrequent or sporadic, (2) periodic episodes of seed production and germination may satiate herbivore populations, and/or (3) Prosopis seedling establishment occurs during periods of low herbivore density.