Understanding how intra-specific differences in plant traits mediate vulnerability to herbivores of relevant habitat-forming plants is vital to attain a better knowledge on the drivers of the structure and functioning of ecosystems. Such studies, however, are rare in seagrass-mesograzer systems despite the increasingly recognized relevance of mesograzers as seagrass consumers. We investigated the role and potential trade-offs of multiple leaf traits in mediating the vulnerability of the seagrass Zostera noltei to different mesograzer species, the amphipod Gammarus insensibilis and the isopod Idotea chelipes. We worked with plants from two different meadows for which contrasting chemical and structural traits were expected based on previous information. We found that plants with high vulnerability to mesograzers (i.e. those preferred and subjected to higher rates of leaf area loss) had not only higher nitrogen content and lower C:N, fibre, and phenolics, but also tender and thinner leaves. No trade-offs between chemical and structural traits of the seagrass were detected, as they were positively correlated. When leaf physical structure was removed using agar-reconstituted food, amphipod preference towards high-susceptibility plants disappeared; thus indicating that structural rather than chemical traits mediated the feeding preference. Removal of plant structure reduced the size of isopod preference to less than half, indicating a stronger contribution of structural traits (>50%) but combined with chemical/nutritional traits in mediating the preference. We then hypothesized that the high environmental nutrient levels recorded in the meadow exhibiting high susceptibility modulate the differences observed between meadows in seagrass traits. To test this hypothesis, we exposed low-vulnerability shoots to eutrophic nutrient levels in a 6-week enrichment experiment. Nutrient enrichment increased Z. noltei nitrogen content and lowered C: N, fibre, and phenolics, but had no effect on structural traits. Overall, our findings help to better understand the traitmediated seagrass susceptibility to mesograzers and reinforce the increasingly recognized role of structural defences against herbivory.
KeyWords Plus:PLANT-HERBIVORE INTERACTIONS; FRESH-WATER MACROPHYTES; BROWN ALGAL PHLOROTANNINS; CHEMICAL DEFENSES; MARINE HERBIVORES; INTRASPECIFIC VARIATION; ANTIHERBIVORE DEFENSES; NUTRIENT AVAILABILITY; FEEDING PREFERENCES; COASTAL ECOSYSTEMS