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Parasitism rate, parasitoid community composition and host specificity on exposed and semi-concealed caterpillars from a tropical rainforest


The processes maintaining the enormous diversity of herbivore—parasitoid food webs depend on parasitism rate and parasitoid host specificity. The two parameters have to be evaluated in concert to make conclusions about the importance of parasitoids as natural enemies and guide biological control. We document parasitism rate and host specificity in a highly diverse caterpillar-parasitoid food web encompassing 266 species of lepidopteran hosts and 172 species of hymenopteran or dipteran parasitoids from a lowland tropical forest in Papua New Guinea. We found that semi-concealed hosts (leaf rollers and leaf tiers) represented 84 % of all caterpillars, suffered a higher parasitism rate than exposed caterpillars (12 vs. 5 %) and their parasitoids were also more host specific. Semi-concealed hosts may therefore be generally more amenable to biological control by parasitoids than exposed ones. Parasitoid host specificity was highest in Braconidae, lower in Diptera: Tachinidae, and, unexpectedly, the lowest in Ichneumonidae. This result challenges the long-standing view of low host specificity in caterpillar-attacking Tachinidae and suggests higher suitability of Braconidae and lower suitability of Ichneumonidae for biological control of caterpillars. Semi-concealed hosts and their parasitoids are the largest, yet understudied component of caterpillar—parasitoid food webs. However, they still remain much closer in parasitism patterns to exposed hosts than to what literature reports on fully concealed leaf miners. Specifically, semi-concealed hosts keep an equally low share of idiobionts (2 %) as exposed caterpillars.

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We thank the New Guinea Binatang Research Center parataxonomists, village assistants, Lauren Helgen, Karolyn Darrow and Kristyna Hrckova for technical assistance and general support. Host plants were identified by George D. Weiblen. Lepidopteran taxonomy was assisted by Jeremy Holloway, Jadranka Rota, Michael Shaffer, Tosio Kumata, Issei Ohshima, and others acknowledged in Craft et al. (2010). Parasitoids were identified by: Kees van Achterberg (Macrocentrinae), Celso Oliveira Azevedo (Bethylidae), Yves Braet (Orgilinae), Michael W. Gates (Chalcidoidea), Ian D. Gauld (Ichneumonidae), Donald L. J. Quicke (Rogadinae and Hormiinae), Michael J. Sharkey (Agathidinae), David Wahl (Ichneumonidae), and Dicky Yu (Cheloninae). This paper is based on work supported by the US National Science Foundation (DEB 0841885), the Czech Science Foundation (206/09/0115 and 13-10486S), the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (IAA600960712), the Czech Ministry of Education (LH11008 and MSM6007665801), and the project CZ.1.07/2.3.00/20.0064 co-financed by the European Social Fund and the state budget of the Czech Republic. The Papua New Guinea caterpillar rearing campaign has been funded by NSF since 1995 in collaboration with George Weiblen and Yves Basset. We thank Paul Hebert, Alex Smith and the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario for the DNA barcodes. Laboratory reagents and BOLD infrastructure were funded by Genome Canada through the Ontario Genomics Institute. We also thank David Wahl, Tom Fayle, Kees van Achterberg, Becky Morris, Owen Lewis, David Storch and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jan Hrcek.

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Hrcek, J., Miller, S.E., Whitfield, J.B. et al. Parasitism rate, parasitoid community composition and host specificity on exposed and semi-concealed caterpillars from a tropical rainforest. Oecologia 173, 521–532 (2013).

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  • Lepidoptera
  • Specialization
  • Community structure
  • External feeding
  • Malesia