How Foraging Tactics Determine Host-plant use by a Polyphagous Caterpillar

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The use of multiple host-plant species by populations of insect herbivores can result from a variety of possible ecological and behavioral mechanisms. An understanding of the foraging mechanisms determining polyphagy in relation to local ecological conditions is therefore essential to understanding the evolutionary ecology of polyphagy. Here, we evaluate patterns of host-plant use by the polyphagous caterpillar Grammia geneura (Lepidoptera: Arctiidae) in relation to host-plant availability and foraging tactics of individuals. Field surveys of caterpillar feeding and plant abundance carried out across several sites, seasons, and years showed that: (1) G. geneura consistently preferred forbs to grasses and woody plants, (2) forb-feeding was opportunistic, supporting the idea that caterpillars sample locally available host-plants, and (3) there were consistent patterns of host-plant use that were not explained by host-plant availability (electivity). An independent set of 7-h observations of 11 caterpillars showed that electivity for a subset of caterpillar-host associations could be explained by variation in the probability of initiating feeding and the average duration of feeding bouts on different hosts but not by variation in the probability of encountering different hosts, thus providing a behavioral basis for the observed variation in host-plant use. The use of detailed foraging tactics by larvae to explain host-plant use at the population level is a novel contribution of this study.



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