1.Some grass species mount a defensive response to grazing by increasing their rate of uptake of silica from the soil and depositing it as abrasive granules in their leaves. Increased plant silica levels reduce food quality for herbivores that feed on these grasses. Here we provide empirical evidence that a principal food species of an herbivorous rodent exhibits a delayed defensive response to grazing by increasing silica concentrations, and present theoretical modelling that predicts that such a response alone could lead to the population cycles observed in some herbivore populations.
2.Experiments under greenhouse conditions revealed that the rate of deposition of silica defences in the grass Deschampsia caespitosa is a time-lagged, nonlinear function of grazing intensity and that, upon cessation of grazing, these defences take around 1 year to decay to within 5% of control levels.
3.Simple coupled grass-herbivore population models incorporating this functional response, and parameterized with empirical data, consistently predict population cycles for a wide range of realistic parameter values for a (Microtus) vole-grass system.
4.Our results support the hypothesis that induced silica defences have the potential to strongly affect the population dynamics of their herbivores. Specifically, the feedback response we observed could be a driving mechanism behind the observed population cycles in graminivorous herbivores, in cases where grazing levels in the field become sufficiently large and sustained to trigger an induced silica defence response.