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Ecology. 2007 Apr;88(4):1012-20.

Fitness related diet-mixing by intraspecific host-plant-switching of specialist insect herbivores.

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  • 1Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, Biozentrum, Am Hubland, D-97074 W├╝rzburg, Germany.


Generalist insect herbivores may profit by feeding on a mixture of plant species that differ in nutritional quality. Herbivore performance can also be affected by intraspecific host plant variation. However, it is unknown whether conspecific plant individuals differ sufficiently to promote diet-mixing behavior in specialist herbivores. We experimentally tested this "specialist diet-mixing hypothesis" for specialist caterpillars (Chrysopsyche imparilis, Lasiocampidae) in a West African savanna. The caterpillars switched regularly between host tree individuals (Combretum fragrans, Combretaceae). To examine whether switching benefited caterpillar performance via diet-mixing, the caterpillars were reared either on leaves from several plant individuals (mixed diet) or on leaves from a single plant. The strongest effect of diet-mixing was found for fecundity, with females reared on a mixed diet laying significantly more eggs than sisters receiving a single-plant diet. In addition, a mixed diet decreased variability in egg size and increased the growth of second-instar caterpillars. Supplementary food choice experiments were conducted to assess a potential influence of lowered host quality (induced by herbivory) on caterpillar behavior; no such effect was found. By linking intraspecific host-switching behavior and herbivore performance, this study provides new information on the relevance of intraspecific plant variation for herbivorous insects.

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