Trees Can Sense When They Are Being Eaten By Deer And Launch A Defense

Roe deer nibbling on trees sets off warning signals within the plant, which then launches a defence. Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 13 Sep 2016, 15:51

Plants and their predators have been evolving in step with each other since the earliest mosses and ferns first grew on land. Covering themselves in spines or producing harmful chemicals is a pretty good defense, but plants are a lot more active in their fight against herbivores than many tend to think. Now, a new study has found that young saplings are able to tell the difference between whether or not their buds have been damaged by the wind or have been nibbled by a deer.

As a young tree stuck to the spot growing on the forest floor, the ravaging appetite of a hungry deer could spell disaster, and ultimately the end. But the saplings don't go down without a fight, launching a chemical defense against the marauding herbivores by producing astringent tannins that taste bad and put the creatures off. But the plant needs to know whether or not damage to its buds is indeed caused by a munching deer, or more benignly caused by other things such as wind.    

It turns out that when a bud is damaged, the trees can sense the animal's saliva in the wound. When it does, it triggers a response from the sapling, which produces a hormone known as salicylic acid, that in turn causes the plant to increase the concentration of tannins in that part of the plant. Not only that, but it also spurs the plant on to produce more growth hormones that cause the remaining buds to grow more vigorously, and make up for those that have been lost to the deer.

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