New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2006) 30(2): 237- 249

The impact of defoliation on the foliar chemistry of southern rātā (Metrosideros umbellata)

Research Article
Jeanne M. Kuhajek 1,3,*
Ian J. Payton 1
Adrian Monks 2
  1. Landcare Research, P.O. Box 69, Lincoln 8152, New Zealand
  2. Landcare Research, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin, New Zealand
  3. Current address: Tasman Extracts Ltd., Factory Rd, Brightwater, Nelson, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) tend to eat young canopy foliage in southern rātā (Metrosideros umbellata), and browsing tends to be concentrated on only a few trees. Samples collected as part of an artificial defoliation experiment were analysed for NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), carbohydrate, and polyphenolic concentrations to determine whether changes in foliar chemistry associated with defoliation provide an explanation for these patterns of browsing. In non-defoliated trees, NPK concentrations were highest in young leaves and declined with age, while concentrations of carbohydrates and polyphenolics were independent of leaf age. Nitrogen, phosphorus and polyphenolic concentrations were consistently higher in canopy (sun) versus subcanopy (shade) foliage regardless of leaf age, a trend that was reversed for potassium. Partial (50%) defoliation had little effect on foliar chemistry, regardless of its timing. Total (100%) defoliation stimulated NPK concentrations and depressed condensed tannin concentrations of new foliage produced by the surviving shoots. These results suggest that brushtail possums may focus their feeding on only a few trees because of nutritional changes to leaves as a result of browsing.