Geography Is More Important Than Host Plant Use for the Population Genetic Structure of a Generalist Insect Herbivore

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Population divergence can occur due to mechanisms associated with geographic isolation and/or due to selection associated with different ecological niches. Much of the evidence for selection‐driven speciation has come from studies of specialist insect herbivores that use different host plant species; however, the influence of host plant use on population divergence of generalist herbivores remains poorly understood. We tested how diet breadth, host plant species and geographic distance influence population divergence of the fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea ; FW). FW is a broadly distributed, extreme generalist herbivore consisting of two morphotypes that have been argued to represent two different species: black‐headed and red‐headed. We characterized the differentiation of FW populations at two geographic scales. We first analysed the influence of host plant and geographic distance on genetic divergence across a broad continental scale for both colour types. We further analysed the influence of host plant, diet breadth and geographic distance on divergence at a finer geographic scale focusing on red‐headed FW in Colorado. We found clear genetic and morphological distinction between red‐ and black‐headed FW, and Colorado FW formed a genetic cluster distinct from other locations. Although both geographic distance and host plant use were correlated with genetic distance, geographic distance accounted for up to 3× more variation in genetic distance than did host plant use. As a rare study investigating the genetic structure of a widespread generalist herbivore over a broad geographic range (up to 3,000 km), our study supports a strong role for geographic isolation in divergence in this system.



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