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Oecologia. 2003 Jul;136(2):244-51. Epub 2003 May 1.

Phenological variation as protection against defoliating insects: the case of Quercus robur and Operophtera brumata.

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Department of Biology, University of Joensuu, PO Box 111, 80101 Joensuu, Finland.


Phenological synchrony between budburst and emergence of larvae is critical for the fitness of many spring-feeding insect herbivores. Therefore, large intraspecific variation in timing of budburst of the host may have a negative effect on the herbivore. We studied how asynchrony between emergence of larvae and budburst affects the fitness of Operophtera brumata (Lepidoptera: Geometridae), a major defoliator of Quercus robur, which can adapt to the phenology of a single tree. It is known that, in maturing leaves of Q. robur, accumulation of condensed tannins has a negative effect on growth of O. brumata. However, there is no information about the effect of hydrolysable tannins and other phenolics that are potential antifeedants. In this study, we also analysed changes in secondary chemistry of the foliage of Q. robur and how different compounds are correlated with growth and survival of O. brumata. The effect of asynchrony on O. brumata was studied in rearing experiments. The neonate larvae were incubated without food for different periods of time. The decline in nutritional quality of foliage was estimated by rearing cohorts of larvae with manipulated hatching times on the leaves of ten individual Q. robur trees. For the chemical analysis, the foliage of these trees was sampled at regular intervals. In the absence of foliage, mortality of neonate larvae started to increase exponentially soon after the larvae emerged. If the larvae missed budburst, the decline in nutritional quality of the foliage led to increased mortality and lower body mass (= fecundity). Hydrolysable tannins were not significantly correlated with performance of the larvae. Only condensed tannins were found to correlate negatively with the growth and survival of O. brumata. Certain individual trees were unsuitable hosts for O. brumata because the decline in quality of the foliage was very rapid. Based on regression equations for increasing rate of mortality and decreasing fecundity, we calculated that a relatively small mismatch of +/-30 degree days between budburst and hatching of larvae leads to a 50% decrease in the fitness of O. brumata. Thus, large phenological variation within a Q. robur stand can limit the colonisation of neighbouring trees by dispersing larvae. Furthermore, the hybridisation of moths adapted to phenologically different trees may lead to maladapted phenology of their offspring.

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