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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Wet years have more caterpillars: interacting roles of plant litter and predation by ants.

  • Author(s): Karban, Richard
  • Grof-Tisza, Patrick
  • Holyoak, Marcel
  • et al.

Published Web Location

Climate is widely recognized as an important factor that affects temporal and spatial patterns of occurrence and abundance of herbivorous insects, although the ecological mechanisms responsible are poorly understood. We found that precipitation and standing water were positively correlated with locations and years of high abundance of caterpillars of the ranchman's tiger moth, Platyprepia virginalis. We analyzed 30 years of survey data and found that the number of large rainfall events was a better predictor of caterpillar abundance than total annual accumulation. We considered three ecological mechanisms that could drive this relationship and conducted observations and manipulative experiments to evaluate these mechanisms. (1) Rainfall facilitates more plant growth, although we found no evidence that increased food quality or quantity was causing the positive association between precipitation and caterpillar abundance. (2) Large rainfall events cause predatory ground-nesting ants to be less abundant and we found that the number of ants that recruited to local sites was negatively associated with survival and abundance of caterpillars. (3) We found that litter from wet sites provided a refuge from ant predation; litter from wet sites was not beneficial to caterpillars in the absence of ants. Both abiotic factors (precipitation) and biotic factors (predatory ants) affected the temporal and spatial abundance of caterpillars directly and interactively. Climate models predict that rainfall will become more variable, suggesting that populations of this caterpillar may also become more variable in the future.

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