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Ecol Evol. 2012 Aug;2(8):1818-25. doi: 10.1002/ece3.296. Epub 2012 Jul 1.

Shifts in species richness, herbivore specialization, and plant resistance along elevation gradients.

Abstract

Environmental gradients have been postulated to generate patterns of diversity and diet specialization, in which more stable environments, such as tropical regions, should promote higher diversity and specialization. Using field sampling and phylogenetic analyses of butterfly fauna over an entire alpine region, we show that butterfly specialization (measured as the mean phylogenetic distance between utilized host plants) decreases at higher elevations, alongside a decreasing gradient of plant diversity. Consistent with current hypotheses on the relationship between biodiversity and the strength of species interactions, we experimentally show that a higher level of generalization at high elevations is associated with lower levels of plant resistance: across 16 pairs of plant species, low-elevation plants were more resistant vis-à-vis their congeneric alpine relatives. Thus, the links between diversity, herbivore diet specialization, and plant resistance along an elevation gradient suggest a causal relationship analogous to that hypothesized along latitudinal gradients.

KEYWORDS:

Diet breadth; generalist herbivores; host plant; phylogenetic ecology; plant resistance; plant–herbivore interaction; polyphagy; specialist herbivores

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