Riding on the wind: volatile compounds dictate selection of grassland seedlings by snails.
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Background and Aims: Seedling herbivory is an important selective filter in many plant communities. The removal of preferred food plants by both vertebrate and, more commonly, invertebrate herbivores can destroy entire seedling cohorts, and consequently dictate plant community assembly. Nevertheless, our understanding of how and why some seedlings are more prone to herbivore attack than their neighbours remains limited. For seedlings, where even minor tissue damage is fatal, avoiding contact with herbivores is probably advantageous and, on this basis, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are strong candidates to fulfil a primary defensive role. Methods: We quantified seedling selection by snails (Cornu aspersum) for 14 common, European grassland species. Seedling acceptability was subsequently compared with species-specific expression of constitutive secondary defence metabolites (CSDMs), and VOCs to determine their relative influence on seedling selection. Results: We found no relationship between seedling acceptability and CSDMs, but seedling selection was strongly associated with VOC profiles. Monoterpenes (specifically β-ocimene) were identified as likely attractants, while green leaf volatiles (GLVs) (3-hexen-1-ol acetate) were strongly associated with low seedling acceptability. Conclusions: By elucidating a relationship between VOCs and seedling acceptability, we contradict a long-held, but poorly tested, assumption that seedling selection by herbivores in (semi-)natural plant communities centres on CSDMs. Instead, our results corroborate recent work showing how GLVs, including 3-hexen-1-ol acetate, deter crop seedling selection by molluscs. Although our failure to establish any early-ontogenetic relationship between VOCs and CSDMs also suggests that the former do not 'advertise' possession of the latter, we nevertheless reveal the role that VOCs play in defending seedlings against herbivory before lethal damage occurs.
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