Elevational gradients provide natural experiments for examining how variation in abiotic forces such as nutrient mineralization rates, risk of photodamge, temperature, and precipitation influence plant—insect interactions. At the Coweeta LTER site in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, we examined spatial and temporal variation in striped maple, Acer pensylvanicum, foliar quality and associated patterns in the arthropod community. Variation in herbivore densities was associated more strongly with seasonal variation in plant quality than with spatial variation in quality among three sampling sites. Leaf chewer, but not phloem feeder or arthropod predator, densities increased with elevation. Foliar quality, by our measures, decreased throughout the growing season, with decreases in nitrogen concentrations and increases in lignin concentrations. Foliar quality varied among the three sites but not systematically along the elevational gradient. We conclude that, in this system, temporal heterogeneity in plant quality is likely to be more important to insect herbivores than is spatial heterogeneity and that other factors, such as the abiotic environment and natural enemies, likely have substantial effects on herbivore density.
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