Freshwater red algae use activated chemical defenses against herbivores

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Goodman, Keri M.
Hay, Mark E.
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Chemically mediated interactions have important ecological and evolutionary effects on populations and communities. Despite recognition that herbivory can significantly affect the biomass and composition of freshwater macrophyte communities, there are few investigations of chemical defenses among freshwater vascular plants and mosses and none of freshwater red algae. This study compares the palatability of five species of freshwater red algae (Batrachospermum helminthosum, Boldia erythrosiphon, Kumanoa sp., Paralemanea annulata, and Tuomeya americana) that occur in the southeastern United States relative to two co-occurring macrophytes (the chemically defended aquatic moss Fontinalis novae-angliae and the broadly palatable green alga Cladophora glomerata). We assessed the potential role of structural, nutritional, and chemical traits in reducing macrophyte susceptibility to generalist crayfish grazers. Both native and non-native crayfish significantly preferred the green alga C. glomerata over four of the five species of red algae. B. erythrosiphon was palatable, while the cartilaginous structure of P. annulata reduced its susceptibility to grazing, and chemical defenses of B. helminthosum, Kumanoa sp., and T. americana rendered these species as unpalatable as the moss F. novae-angliae. Extracts from these latter species reduced feeding by ~30-60% relative to solvent controls if tissues were crushed (simulating herbivore damage) prior to extraction in organic solvents. However, if algae were first soaked in organic solvents that inhibit enzymatic activity and then crushed, crude extracts stimulated or had no effect on herbivory. B. helminthosum, Kumanoa sp., and T. americana all exhibited "activated" chemical defenses in which anti-herbivore compounds are produced rapidly upon herbivore attack via enzymatic processes. In an additional accept/reject behavioral assay, B. helminthosum extracts reduced the number of crayfish willing to feed by >90%. Given that three of the five red algal taxa examined in this study yielded deterrent crude extracts, selection for defensive chemistry in freshwater rhodophytes appears to be substantial. Activated chemical defenses are thought to be an adaptation to reduce the resource allocation and ecological costs of defense. As such, activated chemical defenses may be favored in freshwater red algae, whose short-lived gametophytes must grow and reproduce rapidly. Roughly 20% of the known chemical defenses produced by marine algae are activated; further examination is needed to determine whether the frequency of activated chemistry is higher in freshwater red algae compared to their marine counterparts. Continued investigation of chemical defenses in freshwater red algae will contribute to among-system comparisons, providing new insights in the generality of plant-herbivore interactions and their evolution.
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