Host use diversification during range shifts shapes global variation in Lepidopteran dietary breadth


Niche breadths tend to be greater at higher latitudes. This pattern is frequently assumed to emerge from the cumulative effects of multiple, independent local adaptation events along latitudinal environmental gradients, although evidence that generalization is more beneficial at higher-latitude locations remains equivocal. Here I propose an alternative hypothesis: that latitudinal variation in niche breadths emerges as a non-adaptive consequence of range shift dynamics. Based on analysis of a global dataset comprising more than 6,934 globally distributed dietary records from 4,410 Lepidopteran species, this hypothesis receives robust support. Population-level dietary niche breadths are better explained by the relative position of the population within its geographic range and the species’ poleward range extent than by the latitude of diet observation. Broader diets are observed closer to poleward range limits and in species that have attained higher latitudes. Moreover, latitudinal variation in diet breadth is more prominent within and among species undergoing rapid, contemporary range shifts than for species with more stable ranges. Together these results suggest that latitudinal patterns in niche breadth represent a transient and emergent property of recent geographic range dynamics and need not require underlying gradients in selective agents or fitness trade-offs. The results have wide-ranging implications for global ecology and for anticipating changes in host use during ongoing distributional shifts of pests and disease vectors.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of Lepidopteran dietary niche breadths in the dataset.
Fig. 2: Effect of relative range position, range dynamics and latitude on dietary niche breadth in Lepidopterans.

Data availability

All data used in this study are freely publicly available from the cited sources17,19,20. Reuse of the HOSTS dataset is conditional upon permission from the curators.


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I thank M. C. Singer for helpful discussions and comments. I thank I. Kitching for permissions to use the Lepidopteran host plant database curated by the Natural History Museum London. I also thank the authors of refs. 19,20 for making their range shift data publicly available, and to all contributors to and curators of the open access databases used in this study.

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Correspondence to Lesley T. Lancaster.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Alternative distributional forms fitted to dietary niche breadths in the dataset.

The number of host plants used per Lepidopteran population (n = 6934 observations) was best fit by a discrete, truncated lognormal distribution. P-values reflect the null hypothesis that data were sampled from a particular distribution.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Distribution of Lepidopteran dietary niche in the dataset.

Histogram of number of host species used (i.e., dietary breadth) per Lepidopteran populations in the dataset (n = 6934 observations). A) The full distribution, B) Inset of the distribution (limited to n = 100 records per category), to show the distribution of the tail.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Data range corresponding to main text Fig. 2: Relationships between geographic range position and diet breadth.

a) Boxplots comparing geographic range positions of generalist and specialist populations of Lepidopterans (specialist = only one host recorded for the population, n = 3100 populations; generalist = more than 1 host recorded for the population, n = 3834 populations). Midline = median value; upper and lower limits of box = 3rd and 1st quartile; whiskers are 1.5x interquartile range. B) For the n = 1239 species with host range observations in multiple locations (totalling n = 3769 observations), boxplots represent the median ± quartiles of residual proportional host use of populations at different distances from the poleward geographic range margins, whiskers are 1.5x the interquartile range, and the full data range is depicted in grey. Residual host range calculated from the model presented in Table 1D, see also Fig. 2 legend.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Geographic locations of dietary niche data used in this study.

Each location (n = 148) appearing in the final dataset is colour-coded by the log-transformed number of unique Lepidopteran species-host plant associations in that location (n = 20 categories). Locations lacking colour are not present in the dataset.

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Lancaster, L.T. Host use diversification during range shifts shapes global variation in Lepidopteran dietary breadth. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 963–969 (2020).

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