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Oecologia. 2003 May;135(3):354-61. Epub 2003 Mar 1.

Performance of the cyclic autumnal moth, Epirrita autumnata, in relation to birch mast seeding.

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  • 1Section of Ecology, Department of Biology, University of Turku, 20014, Turku, Finland.


The mast depression hypothesis has been put forward to explain the 9- to 10-year population cycle of the autumnal moth (Epirrita autumnata; Lepidoptera: Geometridae) in northern Fennoscandia. We analysed long-term data from Finnish Lapland in order to evaluate the critical assumption of the mast depression hypothesis: that better individual performance of herbivores, followed by high annual growth rate of populations, occurs in the year following mast seeding of the host, the mountain birch ( Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii). Since mast seeding has been suggested to occur at the expense of chemical defence against herbivores, we bioassayed the quality of birch leaves from the same trees by means of yearly growth trials with autumnal moth larvae. We also measured the size of wild adults as a determinant of potential fecundity of the species in different years. The relative growth rate of larvae was poorer in post-mast years compared to other years, rather than better as assumed by the hypothesis. Conversely, a slight indication of the increase in potential fecundity was observed due to the somewhat larger adult size in post-mast years. Population growth rate estimates, however, showed that the increase in fecundity would have to be much higher to facilitate population increase towards a cyclic peak with outbreak density. Accordingly, our two data sets do not support the assumption of a higher annual growth rate in autumnal moth populations subsequent to mast seeding of the host, thereby contradicting the predictions of the mast depression hypothesis. Temperatures, when indexed by the North Atlantic Oscillation and accumulated thermal sums, were observed to correlate with the abundance or rate of population change of the autumnal moth. The factors underlying the regular population cycles of the autumnal moth, however, remain unidentified. Overall, we suggest that the causal agents in cyclic insect population dynamics should be clarified by field experimentation, since trophic interactions are complex and are further modified by abiotic factors such as climate.

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