Grasses As Food Resource

Grasses make up the largest portion of the grassland biomass; consequently, the insect communities of grasslands are determined more by the monocotyledonous Poaceae than by the dicotyledonous herb families. Grasses differ from the Dicotyledonae in that their architecture is simple, and the intercalary meristems, which substitute for growth from terminal buds, are protected by hard leaf sheaths. Most grasses lack the variety of secondary compounds that deter herbivory in most dicotyledons. For example, cyanogens and toxic terpenoids are rare, and alkaloids are present in <0.2% of grass species but in 20% of all vascular plants. Grass-feeding insects such as the oligophagous grasshoppers select their pooid-grass host plants in that they simply reject plant tissues enriched with secondary compounds (deterrents), while no phagostimulants characterizing grasses as a group have been found. Grasses are not toxic, but this does not mean that they are little protected from herbivory; just the contrary is true (see below).

Endophytic fungi have been considered acquired chemical defenses in grasses, and the main mechanism is the production of mycotoxins, notably alkaloids. The presence of these seed-borne Neotyphodium endophyte fungi may cause dramatic toxicosis to grazing livestock, best known from L. perenne and Festuca arundinacea. In addition to deterring vertebrate herbivory, these endophytes are also well known for increasing resistance to insect pests, microorganisms, and drought. Endophytes may also alter attack of natural enemies in that they enhance larval development time of the herbivore (the slow growth—high mortality hypothesis) or directly affect immature enemies, e.g., parasitoids feeding on the toxic tissues of their hosts.

Within and among grass species, a considerable chemical and morphological variability may be found. Nutrient availability of grass shoots is greatly determined by the shoots' age. Fresh internodes have high concentrations of the major nutrients (water, protein, minerals) and reduced concentrations of plant-resistance factors (raw fiber, silicate). High levels of plant nitrogen are generally associated with a high assimilation efficiency and density of phytophagous insects.

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