Do holly leaf spines really deter herbivory?

Daniel A. Potter, Thomas W. Kimmerer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Although spinose teeth of holly leaves have been widely cited as an example of a physical defense against herbivores, this assumption is based largely on circumstantial evidence and on general misinterpretation of a single, earlier experiment. We studied the response of third and fifth instar larvae of the fall webworm, Hyphantria cunea Drury, a generalist, edge-feeding caterpillar, to intact American holly leaves and to leaves that had been modified by blunting the spines, by removing sections of leaf margin between the spines, or by removing the entire leaf margin. The results suggest that the thick glabrous cuticle and tough leaf margin of Ilex opaca are more important than the spinose teeth in deterring edge-feeding caterpillars. Microscopic examination of mature leaves revealed that the epidermis is thickened at the leaf margin, and that the leaf is cirucumscribed by a pair of fibrous veins. In simple choice tests neither domesticated rabbits nor captive whitetailed deer discriminated between spinescent holly foliage and foliage from which spines were removed. Nevertheless, we found little evidence of herbivory by mammals in the field, either on small experimental trees or in the forest understory. While it is possible that spinose teeth contribute to defense by reducing acceptibility of holly relative to other palatable plant species, we suggest that the high concentrations of saponins and poor nutritional quality of holly foliage may be more important than spines in deterring vertebrate herbivores. The degree of leaf spinescence and herbivory was compared at different heights with the tree canopy to test the prediction that lower leaves should be more spinescent as a deterrent to browsers. Leaves on lower branches of mature forest trees were slightly more spinescent than were upper leaves, and juvenile trees were slightly more spinescent than were mature trees. However, there was no relationship between degree of spinescence and feeding damage. The greater spinescence of holly leaves low in the canopy is probably an ontogenetic phenomenon rather than a facultative defense against browsers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)216-221
Number of pages6
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1988


  • Ilex opaca
  • Plant defense
  • Schlerophylly
  • Spinescence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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