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Local and regional dynamics of a specialist herbivore: overexploitation of a patchily distributed host plant

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This study reports a rare example where a native herbivorous insect frequently overexploits local populations of its perennial host. Local dynamics of a flightless weevil (Hadramphus spinipennis, Curculionidae) and its host plant (Aciphylla dieffenbachii, Apiaceae) were assessed for one discrete patch. In this main study site local weevil population structure, dynamics and movement were investigated using a capture-recapture study. Local plant dynamics were studied by mapping plant location, size, sex and the phenological stage of each plant. Regional weevil and plant dynamics were studied for six plant patches using line-transect counts to estimate local weevil numbers and repeated counts of the number of flowering adult plants to assess plant numbers. Dispersal was assessed by regularly searching all plant patches for marked weevils that emigrated from the main study site. Prior to extinction, local weevil abundance, survival and recruitment rates increased continuously. At the same time the feeding damage on the plants increased and the area covered by A. dieffenbachii decreased until no plants were left. An increase in weevil abundance was clearly associated with the extinction of the local host plant population. Weevils stayed in their local host plant patch whilst food was available and dispersed only after local extinction of the plant. Over a 4-year period four local population extinctions were observed. This study was too short to allow explicit conclusions to be drawn about the ratio of extinction to colonisation rates for both the weevil and the host plant populations. However, persistence of this locally unstable system appears possible only in a fragmented habitat where asynchrony in local dynamics is maintained.

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Correspondence to K. Schöps.

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Schöps, K. Local and regional dynamics of a specialist herbivore: overexploitation of a patchily distributed host plant. Oecologia 132, 256–263 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-002-0936-2

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  • Unstable local dynamics
  • Capture-recapture
  • Spatial heterogeneity
  • Metapopulation
  • Conservation