Invasive symbioses between wood-boring insects and fungi are emerging as a new and currently uncontrollable threat to forest ecosystems, as well as fruit and timber industries throughout the world. The bark and ambrosia beetles (Curculionidae: Scolytinae and Platypodinae) constitute the large majority of these pests, and are accompanied by a diverse community of fungal symbionts. Increasingly, some invasive symbioses are shifting from non-pathogenic saprotrophy in native ranges to a prolific tree-killing in invaded ranges, and are causing significant damage. In this paper, we review the current understanding of invasive insect–fungus symbioses. We then ask why some symbioses that evolved as non-pathogenic saprotrophs, turn into major tree-killers in non-native regions. We argue that a purely pathology-centred view of the guild is not sufficient for explaining the lethal encounters between exotic symbionts and naive trees. Instead, we propose several testable hypotheses that, if correct, lead to the conclusion that the sudden emergence of pathogenicity is a new evolutionary phenomenon with global biogeographical dynamics. To date, evidence suggests that virulence of the symbioses in invaded ranges is often triggered when several factors coincide: (i) invasion into territories with naive trees, (ii) the ability of the fungus to either overcome resistance of the naive host or trigger a suicidal over-reaction, and (iii) an ‘olfactory mismatch’ in the insect whereby a subset of live trees is perceived as dead and suitable for colonization. We suggest that individual cases of tree mortality caused by invasive insect–fungus symbionts should no longer be studied separately, but in a global, biogeographically and phylogenetically explicit comparative framework.
- Received May 30, 2011.
- Accepted June 17, 2011.
- This journal is © 2011 The Royal Society