A herbivore is an animal anatomically and physiologically adapted to eating plant material, for example foliage or marine algae, for the main component of its diet. As a result of their plant diet, herbivorous animals typically have mouthparts adapted to rasping or grinding. Horses and other herbivores have wide flat teeth that are adapted to grinding grass, tree bark, and other tough plant material.
Herbivory is a form of consumption in which an organism principally eats autotrophs such as plants, algae and photosynthesizing bacteria. More generally, organisms that feed on autotrophs in general are known as primary consumers. Herbivory is usually limited to animals that eat plants. Fungi, bacteria and protists that feed on living plants are usually termed plant pathogens (plant diseases), while fungi and microbes that feed on dead plants are described as saprotrophs. Flowering plants that obtain nutrition from other living plants are usually termed parasitic plants. There is, however, no single exclusive and definitive ecological classification of consumption patterns; each textbook has its own variations on the theme.
Although herbivory was long thought to be a Mesozoic phenomenon, fossils have shown that within less than 20 million years after the first land plants evolved, plants were being consumed by arthropods. Insects fed on the spores of early Devonian plants, and the Rhynie chert also provides evidence that organisms fed on plants using a "pierce and suck" technique.
Herbivory among four-limbed terrestrial vertebrates, the tetrapods developed in the Late Carboniferous (307 – 299 million years ago). Early tetrapods were large amphibious piscivores. While amphibians continued to feed on fish and insects, some reptiles began exploring two new food types, tetrapods (carnivory) and plants (herbivory). The entire dinosaur order ornithischia was composed with herbivores dinosaurs. Carnivory was a natural transition from insectivory for medium and large tetrapods, requiring minimal adaptation. In contrast, a complex set of adaptations was necessary for feeding on highly fibrous plant materials.
Herbivores form an important link in the food chain because they consume plants in order to digest the carbohydrates photosynthetically produced by a plant. Carnivores in turn consume herbivores for the same reason, while omnivores can obtain their nutrients from either plants or animals. Due to a herbivore's ability to survive solely on tough and fibrous plant matter, they are termed the primary consumers in the food cycle (chain). Herbivory, carnivory, and omnivory can be regarded as special cases of consumer¥resource interactions.
Optimal Foraging Theory is a model for predicting animal behavior while looking for food or other resource, such as shelter or water. This model assesses both individual movement, such as animal behavior while looking for food, and distribution within a habitat, such as dynamics at the population and community level. For example, the model would be used to look at the browsing behavior of a deer while looking for food, as well as that deer's specific location and movement within the forested habitat and its interaction with other deer while in that habitat.
In effect, this would indicate that a herbivore in a dense forest would spend more time handling (eating) the vegetation because there was so much vegetation around than a herbivore in a sparse forest, who could easily browse through the forest vegetation. According to the Holling's disk equation, a herbivore in the sparse forest would be more efficient at eating than the herbivore in the dense forest.
The myriad defenses displayed by plants means that their herbivores need a variety of skills to overcome these defenses and obtain food. These allow herbivores to increase their feeding and use of a host plant. Herbivores have three primary strategies for dealing with plant defenses: choice, herbivore modification, and plant modification.
Physical, or mechanical, defenses are barriers or structures designed to deter herbivores or reduce intake rates, lowering overall herbivory. Thorns such as those found on roses or acacia trees are one example, as are the spines on a cactus. Smaller hairs known as trichomes may cover leaves or stems and are especially effective against invertebrate herbivores. In addition, some plants have waxes or resins that alter their texture, making them difficult to eat. Also the incorporation of silica into cell walls is analogous to that of the role of lignin in that it is a compression-resistant structural component of cell walls; so that plants with their cell walls impregnated with silica are thereby afforded a measure of protection against herbivory.