Trees and shrubs in suburban forest understories can be subject to chronic herbivory from abundant white-tailed deer. An undocumented consequence of this stress may be shifts in secondary metabolite production associated with defense. We aimed to learn whether plants protected from deer exhibited different metabolomic profiles compared to those exposed to deer. We tested the indigenous species Nyssa sylvatica and Lindera benzoin and the invasive, nonindigenous species Rosa multiflora and Euonymus alatus within a suburban forest understory in New Jersey, USA, in unfenced plots and plots fenced for 5.3 years. We did untargeted metabolomics by sampling leaves from three plants of each species per 6-7 fenced and unfenced plots, conducting chloroform-methanol extractions followed by LC-MS/MS, and conducting statistical analysis on Metaboanalyst. We also scored each species for deer browse frequency over eight years, and compared their heights and percent cover between unfenced and fenced plots. The analysis identified 2,333 metabolites. The global metabolome diverged significantly between fenced and unfenced plots pooled across species, but for individual species only N. sylvatica exhibited a significant fencing effect. Nyssa sylvatica was one of the most browsed species and was the only one with both greater cover and height in fenced plots, suggesting greater susceptibility to deer browsing. The metabolites most responsible for the fenced/unfenced divergence also were affected by the species-fencing combination, with increases in certain species but decreases in others. The most significant metabolites that were upregulated in fenced plants include some involved in defense-related metabolic pathways, e.g. monoterpenoid biosynthesis. Further study of more species in multiple sites is needed to learn how common metabolomic responses to deer are among forest species, how the intensity of deer pressure influences the responses, which types of metabolites are most affected, and if there are ecological consequences at the physiological, population, and/or community levels.
Plants in suburban forests of eastern North America face the dual stressors of high white-tailed deer density and invasion by nonindigenous plants. The combination of chronic deer herbivory and strong competition from invasive plants could alter a plant’s stress- and defense-related secondary chemistry, especially for long-lived juvenile trees in the understory, but this has not been studied. We measured foliar total antioxidants, phenolics, and flavonoids in juveniles of two native trees, Fraxinus pennsylvanica (green ash) and Fagus grandifolia (American beech), growing in six forests in the suburban landscape of central New Jersey, USA. The trees grew in experimental plots that had been subject for 2.5 years to factorial treatments of deer access/exclosure X addition/no addition of the nonindigenous invasive grass Microstegium vimineum (Japanese stiltgrass). As other hypothesized drivers of plant secondary chemistry, we also measured non-stiltgrass herb layer cover, light levels, and water availability. Univariate mixed model analysis of the deer and stiltgrass effects and multivariate structural equation modeling (SEM) of all variables showed that both greater stiltgrass cover and greater deer pressure induced antioxidants, phenolics, and flavonoids, with some variation between species. Deer were generally the stronger factor, and stiltgrass effects were most apparent at high stiltgrass density. SEM also revealed that soil dryness directly increased the chemicals; deer had additional positive, but indirect, effects via influence on the soil; in beech PAR positively affected flavonoids; and herb layer cover had no effect. Juvenile trees’ chemical defense/stress responses to deer and invasive plants can be protective, but also could have a physiological cost, with negative consequences for recruitment to the canopy. Ecological implications for species and their communities will depend on costs and benefits of stress/defense chemistry in the specific environmental context, particularly with respect to invasive plant competitiveness, extent of invasion, local deer density, and deer browse preferences.