Nitrogen in insects: Implications for trophic complexity and species diversification

William F. Fagan, Evan Siemann, Charles Mitter, Robert F. Denno, Andrea F. Huberty, H. Arthur Woods, James J. Elser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

343 Scopus citations


Disparities in nutrient content (nitrogen and phosphorus) between herbivores and their plant resources have lately proven to have major consequences for herbivore success, consumer-driven nutrient cycling, and the fate of primary production in ecosystems. Here we extend these findings by examining patterns of nutrient content between animals at higher trophic levels, specifically between insect herbivores and predators. Using a recently compiled database on insect nutrient content, we found that predators exhibit on average 15% greater nitrogen content than herbivores. This difference persists after accounting for variation from phylogeny and allometry. Among herbivorous insects, we also found evidence that recently derived lineages (e.g., herbivorous Diptera and Lepidoptera) have, on a relative basis, 15%-25% less body nitrogen than more ancient herbivore lineages (e.g., herbivorous Orthoptera and Hemiptera). We elaborate several testable hypotheses for the origin of differences in nitrogen content between trophic levels and among phylogenetic lineages. For example, interspecific variation in insect nitrogen content may be directly traceable to differences in dietary nitrogen (including dilution by gut contents), selected for directly in response to the differential scarcity of dietary nitrogen, or an indirect consequence of adaptation to different feeding habits. From some functional perspectives, the magnitude rather than the source of the interspecific differences in nitrogen content may be most critical. We conclude by discussing the implications of the observed patterns for both the trophic complexity of food webs and the evolutionary radiation of herbivorous insects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)784-802
Number of pages19
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2002


  • Allometry
  • Dietary nitrogen
  • Diversification of herbivorous insects
  • Food web dynamics
  • Insect phylogeny
  • Nutrient content


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