Larval parasitism in a specialist herbivore is explained by phenological synchrony and host plant availability
Barea‐Azcón, José Miguel
Shaw, Mark R
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Parasitism is a key factor in the population dynamics of many herbivorous insects, although its impact on host populations varies widely, for instance, along latitudinal and altitudinal gradients. Understanding the sources of geographical variation in host–parasitoid interactions is crucial for reliably predicting the future success of the interacting species under a context of global change.
Here, we examine larval parasitism in the butterfly Aglais urticae in south-west Europe, where it is a mountain specialist. Larval nests were sampled over 2 years along altitudinal gradients in three Iberian mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, home to its southernmost European population. Additional data on nettle condition and adult butterflies were obtained in the study areas.
These data sources were used to investigate whether or not differences in parasitism rates are related to the geographical position and phenology of the host, and to the availability of the host plants.
Phenological differences in the host populations between regions were related to the severity of summer drought and the corresponding differences in host plant availability. At the trailing-edge of its distribution, the butterfly's breeding season was restricted to the end of winter and spring, while in its northern Iberian range the season was prolonged until mid-summer. Although parasitism was an important source of mortality in all regions, parasitism rates and parasitoid richness were highest in the north and lowest in the south. Moreover, within a region, there was a notable increase in parasitism rates over time, which probably led to selection against an additional late summer host generation in northern regions. Conversely, the shorter breeding season in Sierra Nevada resulted in a loss of synchrony between the host and one important late season parasitoid, Sturmia bella, which may partly explain the high density of this butterfly species at the trailing-edge of its range.
Our results support the key role of host phenology in accounting for differences in parasitism rates between populations. They also provide insights into how climate through host plant availability affects host phenology and, ultimately, the impact of parasitism on host populations.