Host specificity of insect herbivores in tropical forests

Vojtech Novotny, Yves Basset


Studies of host specificity in tropical insect herbivores are evolving from a focus on insect distribution data obtained by canopy fogging and other mass collecting methods, to a focus on obtaining data on insect rearing and experimentally verified feeding patterns. We review this transition and identify persisting methodological problems. Replicated quantitative surveys of plant–herbivore food webs, based on sampling efforts of an order of magnitude greater than is customary at present, may be cost-effectively achieved by small research teams supported by local assistants. Survey designs that separate historical and ecological determinants of host specificity by studying herbivores feeding on the same plant species exposed to different environmental or experimental conditions are rare. Further, we advocate the use of host‐specificity measures based on plant phylogeny. Existing data suggest that a minority of species in herbivore communities feed on a single plant species when alternative congeneric hosts are available. Thus, host plant range limits tend to coincide with those of plant genera, rather than species or suprageneric taxa. Host specificity among tropical herbivore guilds decreases in the sequence: granivores>leaf-miners>fructivores>leaf-chewers=sap-suckers>xylophages>root-feeders, thus paralleling patterns observed in temperate forests. Differences in host specificity between temperate and tropical forests are difficult to assess since data on tropical herbivores originate from recent field studies, whereas their temperate counterparts derive from regional host species lists, assembled over many years. No major increase in host specificity from temperate to tropical communities is evident. This conclusion, together with the recent downward revisions of extremely high estimates of tropical species richness, suggest that tropical ecosystems may not be as biodiverse as previously thought.



    • Received August 5, 2004.
    • Accepted November 23, 2004.
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