Evidence of long and discontinuous juvenile periods in Trillium catesbaei under contrasting levels of herbivory

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We investigated the influence of chronic herbivory by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus (Zimmermann, 1780)) on the age structure and morphology of Trillium catesbaei Elliott. At sites with contrasting histories of deer abundance (Cades Cove, high; Whiteoak Sink, low), we measured morphological characteristics and determined minimum plant age for 60 plants (30 per site) in the single-leaf life-history stage. We chose this stage because its presence is considered an indication of successful reproduction by the previous generation, but its value could be inflated if plants regress or remain in this stage for extended periods. Our results suggest that T. catesbaei may spend upwards of a decade in this stage. Cades Cove single leaves were significantly older (p = 0.011) than those at Whiteoak Sink. Rhizome recession (decay of the oldest portion) was more common at Cades Cove, suggesting greater regression to this stage from three-leaf stages. Although minimum plant age was significantly associated with vegetative attributes (p < 0.002) at Whiteoak Sink, these attributes were decoupled at Cades Cove (p ≥ 0.642). Collectively, our results suggest that chronic herbivory may lead to a long and regressive residency period in the single-leaf stage. Consequently, in Trillium populations heavily impacted by deer, the number of single-leaf plants may be a poor indicator of reproductive success and population viability.

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