This material has been published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (1999, vol 199, pp 63-85), the only definitive repository of the content that has been certified and accepted after peer review. Copyright and all rights therein are retained by Academic Press. This material may not be copied or reposted without explicit permission (Copyright 1999 by Academic Press).

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Lethal toxins in non-preferred foods: how plant chemical defences can drive microtine cycles

S. Plesner Jensen & C.P. Doncaster

We hypothesize that periodic lethal toxin production by non-preferred food species can explain the precipitous decline phase of vole cycles in arctic and alpine tundra regions. For plants that cannot respond to grazing damage by compensatory shoot growth, periodic production of toxins can have an adaptive advantage at the individual level. Several plants in the diet of cyclical small mammals do produce lethal toxins and some production is known to be cyclical. Despite the wealth of indirect and anecdotal observation in support of the hypothesis, there remains a lacuna in the hard core of evidence: periodic production of lethal toxins and toxin-related deaths in microtines. We argue that this is only because it has not been sought among likely plants or has been sought at the wrong place or time. Strong candidate species are non-preferred foods with circumpolar distributions such as Empetrum nigrum or Vaccinium uliginosum. The right place to expect lethal toxin production is the high altitude or latitude epicentres of population crashes, in regions where recovery is by immigration as well as births; the right time is at the cusp of the crash. We propose an experimental design to test the hypothesis.


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Plesner Jensen, S. & Doncaster, C. P. (1999) Lethal toxins in non-preferred foods: how plant chemical defences can drive microtine cycles. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 199: 63-85.


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