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Host specificity of Lepidoptera in tropical and temperate forests


For numerous taxa, species richness is much higher in tropical than in temperate zone habitats1. A major challenge in community ecology and evolutionary biogeography is to reveal the mechanisms underlying these differences. For herbivorous insects, one such mechanism leading to an increased number of species in a given locale could be increased ecological specialization, resulting in a greater proportion of insect species occupying narrow niches within a community. We tested this hypothesis by comparing host specialization in larval Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) at eight different New World forest sites ranging in latitude from 15° S to 55° N. Here we show that larval diets of tropical Lepidoptera are more specialized than those of their temperate forest counterparts: tropical species on average feed on fewer plant species, genera and families than do temperate caterpillars. This result holds true whether calculated per lepidopteran family or for a caterpillar assemblage as a whole. As a result, there is greater turnover in caterpillar species composition (greater β diversity) between tree species in tropical faunas than in temperate faunas. We suggest that greater specialization in tropical faunas is the result of differences in trophic interactions; for example, there are more distinct plant secondary chemical profiles from one tree species to the next in tropical forests than in temperate forests as well as more diverse and chronic pressures from natural enemy communities.

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Figure 1: Caterpillar diet breadth for one temperate site, two subtropical sites and four tropical sites.
Figure 2: Mean diet breadth of 1,585 tropical versus 1,052 temperate caterpillar species.
Figure 3: Caterpillar species turnover among host plant species for eight forest and woodland sites across a latitudinal gradient.


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We thank D. Janzen, D. Gruner, G. Rodriguez, J. Landosky and R. Forkner for helpful suggestions for improving the manuscript; G. Howse for making available the CFIS data; E. Selig, A. Frevert, J. McGrath and M. Walker for their efforts in constructing the Canadian database; and a large number of taxonomists, field assistants and students for their help in generating all data. Funding came from the US National Science Foundation, Earthwatch Institute, National Geographic, Tulane University, University of Missouri Research Award, Wesleyan University’s Hughes Summer Research Program, and the National Institute for Climate Change Research.

Author Contributions All authors designed and performed data collection protocols and contributed substantially to writing the paper; M.S.S. proposed the original idea for the paper; M.S.S. and L.A.D. designed the analyses and wrote the first full draft of the paper; J.O.S., R. J. Marquis, J. T. Lill and R. E. Ricklefs contributed extensive revisions; L.A.D. performed statistical analyses and created figures.

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Correspondence to L. A. Dyer.

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Dyer, L., Singer, M., Lill, J. et al. Host specificity of Lepidoptera in tropical and temperate forests. Nature 448, 696–699 (2007).

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