Silicon-based plant defences, tooth wear and voles
Journal of Experimental Biology
Plant-herbivore interactions are hypothesized to drive vole population cycles through the grazing-induced production of phytoliths in leaves. Phytoliths act as mechanical defences because they deter herbivory and lower growth rates in mammals. However, how phytoliths impair herbivore performance is still unknown. Here, we tested whether the amount of phytoliths changes tooth wear patterns. If confirmed, abrasion from phytoliths could play a role in population crashes. We applied dental
... texture analysis (DMTA) to laboratory and wild voles. Lab voles were fed two pelleted diets with differing amounts of silicon, which produced similar dental textures. This was most probably due to the loss of food mechanical properties through pelletization and/or the small difference in silicon concentration between diets. Wild voles were trapped in Poland during spring and summer, and every year across a population cycle. In spring, voles feed on silica-rich monocotyledons, while in the summer they also include silicadepleted dicotyledons. This was reflected in the results; the amount of silica therefore leaves a traceable record in the dental microwear texture of voles. Furthermore, voles from different phases of population cycles have different microwear textures. We tentatively propose that these differences result from grazing-induced phytolith concentrations. We hypothesize that the high amount of phytoliths in response to intense grazing in peak years may result in malocclusion and other dental abnormalities, which would explain how these silicon-based plant defences help provoke population crashes. DMTA could then be used to reconstruct vole population dynamics using teeth from pellets or palaeontological material.