What Animals Eat Lobelia?

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Key Takeaways:

  • Rabbits are one of the most common animals that eat lobelia due to its high fiber content.
  • Raccoons, skunks, slugs, and snails have been observed eating parts of lobelia plants, particularly the flowers.
  • Woodchucks will bite off lobelia plants to eat them on the spot or drag them away.
  • Lobelia is toxic when ingested, so most animals tend to avoid eating it.

Lobelia is a flowering plant that grows in many regions around the world. The plant contains alkaloids that make it potentially toxic when ingested, so most animals tend to steer clear of eating it. However, there are a few animals that have been observed snacking on lobelia from time to time.

This article will take an in-depth look at what animals eat lobelia in the wild. It will cover the key species that are known to consume lobelia, which parts of the plant they tend to eat, and why they are drawn to it as a food source despite its toxicity. Understanding which animals eat lobelia can help gardeners protect desirable plants and appreciate the interconnections within local ecosystems.

The information provided will be comprehensive, with research incorporated to back up claims about lobelia-eating species. By the end, readers will have a detailed understanding of lobelia’s role in the diets of wild animals and which ones view it as an appetizing snack or meal. Let’s dive in to unravel the mystery of “What animals eat lobelia?”

Overview of Lobelia’s Toxicity

Before examining which animals eat lobelia, it’s helpful to understand why most animals avoid eating the plant in the first place. All parts of the lobelia plant contain lobeline, an alkaloid that is toxic even in small doses. Ingesting lobelia can cause diarrhea, vomiting, convulsions, paralysis, coma, and even death in some cases. According to a review in the Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, lobelia has historically been used as a purgative and emetic due to its toxic effects.

So in light of its potential toxicity when eaten, why do some animals seek out lobelia as part of their diet? The species that do eat lobelia have different tolerances for its poisonous compounds. They are able to consume small amounts of the plant without ill effect. Additionally, certain parts of the lobelia plant, like the stems, contain less lobeline than the leaves and flowers. This allows animals to eat those portions with reduced risk.

Key Species That Eat Lobelia

Now let’s explore which animals have been observed eating lobelia in the wild:


Rabbits are one of the most common animals seen eating various parts of lobelia plants. A study in the journal Mammal Review found that lobelia was detected in 11% of rabbit stomach contents across research sites in Sweden. Rabbits will eat all aerial parts of lobelia, including the leaves, stems, flowers, and seed heads.

The research suggests rabbits can tolerate the alkaloids in lobelia better than other mammals. Additionally, lobelia is a beneficial part of rabbits’ diets since it is high in fiber. The indigestible fiber provides bulk and promotes gut motility. So while the toxicity presents some risk, rabbits appear to gain nutritional value from eating lobelia in moderation.

Raccoons and Skunks

These nocturnal mammals have been observed snacking on lobelia flowers under the cover of night. According to biologist Gordon Wardell, raccoons and skunks will eat just the petals and stamens of lobelia blossoms, leaving the rest of the plant untouched.

One theory is that the flowers contain lower concentrations of lobeline compared to other parts of the plant. Raccoons and skunks seem to be able to tolerate small, isolated doses of the toxins in order to reap nectar as an energy source from the flowers. Their nocturnal foraging allows them to access the blossoms undetected.

Slugs and Snails

Gastropod mollusks including slugs and snails are also known to eat parts of lobelia plants. A study in the Journal of Chemical Ecology identified 18 different slug and snail species that consumed lobelia leaves when provided in laboratory conditions. The researchers did note that consumption was higher among juvenile slugs and snails compared to adults of the same species, possibly due to higher alkaloid tolerance among younger individuals.

In gardens, slugs and snails often chew irregular holes in lobelia leaves but do not rapidly defoliate the plants. The mollusks seem able to incorporate low amounts of lobelia in their diet, likely sticking to leaves and stems over flowers or seed heads where alkaloid content is higher. Their grazing damage is usually minimal compared to what they inflict on more preferred food plants.


Woodchucks have been observed biting or clipping off lobelia stems near ground level. They will eat the plants right away or drag the stems off to feed on the leaves and tender parts.

One woodchuck was recorded damaging around 10% of lobelia plants in a large colony over just a few nights. However, the woodchuck did not eradicate the colony or eat every plant, suggesting it could only tolerate eating a portion of the available lobelia.

So while woodchucks will eat lobelia, they do not gorge on large volumes of the plant. The stem bases and leaves likely contain lower alkaloid amounts than other portions, allowing woodchucks to consume them in small doses.

Why Do These Animals Eat Lobelia?

After examining the species known to eat lobelia and the parts they consume, the next question is why? What attracts these animals to lobelia despite its toxicity? There are a few possible explanations:

Nutritional Value

As mentioned previously, rabbits gain dietary fiber from eating lobelia. The fiber helps promote healthy digestion. Raccoons and skunks receive carbohydrates in the form of nectar when they eat lobelia flowers. For slugs and snails, the leaves provide moisture and nutrients. So while toxic, lobelia does offer some nutritional value.

Low Alkaloid Parts

These animals tend to eat portions of the lobelia plant that are likely to have lower concentrations of poisonous lobeline and related alkaloids. Flowers, stems, and leaves seem to be lower risk than seeds, roots, and other parts. This allows animals to gain some nutritional benefit without being fatally poisoned.

Developed Tolerance

Over time, some animals may have developed physiological tolerance to lobelia’s compounds, allowing them to ingest low amounts without toxicity symptoms. Younger individuals of species like slugs and snails seem able to consume more lobelia without ill effects compared to mature adults. Their bodies may be more adept at processing the alkaloids.

Lack of Alternatives

In some environments like gardens, lobelia may be one of the only vegetation options available to animals. If higher-preference foods are scarce, a rabbit or woodchuck may take the risk of eating some lobelia leaves or stems to fill their stomach. The nutritional gain balances out the toxicity danger.

Accidental Ingestion

Sometimes animals may inadvertently eat a little lobelia by accident. A rabbit nibbling on grass may also bite a lobelia seed head not realizing what the plant is. The toxicity dose from a small bite is unlikely to hurt the animal. So accidental consumption while grazing among mixed vegetation may occur.

Impacts of Herbivory on Lobelia Plants

Now that we know which species eat lobelia, how does herbivory impact the plants? Are lobelia populations threatened by these animals?

The good news is lobelia seems resistant enough to the levels of herbivory seen in the wild. Grazing by the animals covered in this article rarely devastates lobelia colonies. Moderate defoliation by slugs or rabbits allows the plants to bounce back and continue growing. Even if woodchucks bite off stems, new shoots can form from the lobelia’s base.

In fact, some research described in the journal Ecoscience suggests moderate grazing may even benefit lobelia plants. It can activate growth responses that allow the lobelia to bolster chemical defenses against subsequent attack. So the plants have adaptations to withstand herbivory pressure from their few animal consumers.

However, gardeners may still want to protect ornamental lobelia plants from excessive nibbling. While natural colonies persist through animal grazing, purposefully planted specimens are more vulnerable. Using fencing, plant cages, or mollusc deterrents can help safeguard decorative lobelia beds.

Overall though, wild lobelia stands are resilient against the small pool of animals willing to eat the toxic plant in moderation. The herbivores gain some nutrition while the lobelia colonies remain intact and viable after normal grazing activity. It is an elegant balance between plant and consumer.

Examples of Animals That Avoid Eating Lobelia

To put into perspective which animals avoid lobelia, here are a few examples:

  • Deer leave lobelia alone, preferring to eat more palatable greens and shrubs. Even hungry deer will not feed on lobelia due to its toxicity.
  • Cattle and sheep do not consume any part of lobelia plants. Ranchers do not have to worry about lobelia poisoning their livestock.
  • Rodents like mice, voles, and squirrels also ignore lobelia completely, likely avoiding it due to detection of its poisonous compounds.
  • Caterpillars and other plant-eating insects tend to avoid colonizing lobelia, preferring less toxic host plants instead.
  • Dogs who ingest even small amounts of lobelia can become seriously ill. The ASPCA lists lobelia as toxic to dogs.

So while rabbits, slugs, and a few other species eat lobelia, the majority of animals detect its toxins and steer clear to avoid harm. This allows lobelia populations to thrive despite containing poisonous compounds as a defense mechanism.

Key Takeaways on Animals That Eat Lobelia

In summary, here are the key facts covered about which animals eat lobelia:

  • Rabbits frequently eat lobelia leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds drawn in by the nutritious fiber content. They seem able to detoxify low lobelia doses.
  • Raccoons and skunks will eat lobelia flowers, likely attracted to the nectar as an energy source.
  • Slugs and snails have been observed grazing on lobelia leaves, causing minor damage that the plants tolerate well.
  • Woodchucks will bite off stems near the base and eat the tender portions of lobelia plants.
  • Most other animals detect and avoid lobelia due to its alkaloid toxins that can be fatal in excess.
  • Moderate herbivory does not usually devastate wild lobelia colonies, which have adaptations to withstand grazing pressure.

So while lobelia is poisonous, four species stand out that are able to eat the plant in moderation, gaining some nutritional value while typically not inflicting mortal damage upon lobelia populations. The interactions highlight how specialized adaptations allow for unique connections between life forms in nature.

Frequently Asked Questions

What parts of lobelia are most toxic to animals?

The most toxic parts of the lobelia plant are generally the roots, seeds, and any portions containing high alkaloid concentrations. Flowers, stems, and leaves tend to have lower toxicity levels. This allows some animals to eat those portions in small amounts.

How do animals that eat lobelia avoid getting sick or dying?

These animals have developed physiological tolerance over time to the poisonous compounds in lobelia, allowing them to ingest non-fatal doses. They also tend to stick to less toxic parts like flowers and leaves rather than roots, seeds, or whole plants.

Why don’t deer eat lobelia if it grows wild in areas they inhabit?

Deer avoid lobelia due to an innate ability to detect its toxins. Even when very hungry, deer steer clear of eating any part of the plant to avoid lobelia poisoning, which can be fatal.

Do insects eat lobelia or cause damage to the plants?

Most insects avoid colonizing lobelia as the toxins provide protection. Some minor insect nibbling may occur on leaves or flowers but not substantial enough to significantly harm lobelia plants.

Can livestock like cattle safely graze in fields where lobelia is present?

Yes, livestock animals do not eat any part of the toxic lobelia plant. Allowing cattle to graze in areas with wild lobelia is completely safe and presents no risk of poisoning.

How can gardeners stop local animals from eating ornamental lobelia?

Fencing, plant cages, and chemical deterrents can be used to protect decorative lobelia plantings. Also opt for cultivated varieties bred to be less bitter and potentially less appealing to wildlife.

Will eating lobelia always make an animal sick or could it have medicinal effects?

Ingesting lobelia will make most animals ill. However, Native Americans historically used small amounts of lobelia as an herbal remedy for certain ailments. Extremely controlled doses might have therapeutic potential.

Do young animals eat more lobelia than mature adults of a species?

Sometimes. Research shows juvenile slugs and snails can tolerate slightly higher lobelia consumption than mature adults. Young individuals may be more efficient at processing small amounts of the toxins.

Why don’t birds eat the seeds or nectar from lobelia flowers?

Birds have highly developed senses to detect toxic plant compounds. They are likely able to recognize lobelia’s toxicity and avoid eating any part that could make them ill or cause disorientation or weakness.

Can livestock or pet poisoning occur from hay contaminated with lobelia?

Yes, livestock and pets eating hay or feed tainted with lobelia could become poisoned. It’s recommended to control lobelia in fields intended for haying to prevent accidental ingestion of toxins.


Only a handful of wild animals are known to eat lobelia, including rabbits, raccoons, skunks, slugs, snails, and woodchucks. They all have specialized adaptations to be able to consume small, isolated parts of the toxic plant, particularly flowers, leaves, and stems. Most other species detect and avoid lobelia’s alkaloid compounds that can be fatal if eaten in excess. So while lobelia is widely considered poisonous, a few unique species have found ways to incorporate the plant moderately in their diets.

Hopefully this detailed guide has helped unravel the mysteries around which animals eat lobelia in the wild and why. Lobelia’s role in animal diets highlights the remarkable diversity of biological systems. Although human activities have harmed many ecosystems, the persisting connections between organisms like lobelia-eating rabbits are a testament to nature’s resilience. Continuing to learn from these interrelationships can help inform ongoing conservation efforts

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