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Benefits of gregarious feeding by aposematic caterpillars depend on group age structure


Gregarious feeding is a common feature of herbivorous insects and can range from beneficial (e.g. dilution of predation risk) to costly (e.g. competition). Group age structure should influence these costs and benefits, particularly when old and young larvae differ in their feeding mode or apparency to predators. We investigated the relative value of gregarious feeding by aposematic larvae of Uresiphita reversalis that we observed feeding in groups of mixed ages and variable densities on wild Lupinus diffusus. In a manipulative field experiment, the survivorship and growth of young larvae were enhanced in the presence of older conspecifics, but not in large groups of similarly aged larvae. Estimates of insect damage and induced plant responses suggest that mixed-age groups enhance plant quality for young larvae while avoiding competition. We conclude that benefits of gregariousness in this species are contingent on group age structure, a finding of significance for the ecology and evolution of gregariousness and other social behaviours.

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We are grateful to the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, for supporting the field work in Florida, the ABS for housing and logistical support, Heron’s Garden Restaurant and Lounge (Lake Placid, FL) for providing some experimental materials, Mark Deyrup (ABS), Marc Lajeunesse, Peter Marks, Dick Root and particularly Jed Sparks (Cornell University) for advice, and S. Cardinal, G. Désurmont, I. Kaplan, A. Kessler, M. Lajeunesse, S. McArt, A. Parachnowitsch, J. Sparks, J. Thaler, S. van Nouyhus, the Kessler Lab, and two anonymous reviewers for manuscript or project feedback. S. A. C. was supported by a Cornell University Sage Graduate Fellowship during the course of this study, and both authors were supported by fellowships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (PGS-D).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Stuart A. Campbell.

Additional information

S. A. Campbell and M. Stastny have contributed equally to this work.

Communicated by Roland A. Brandl.

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Campbell, S.A., Stastny, M. Benefits of gregarious feeding by aposematic caterpillars depend on group age structure. Oecologia 177, 715–721 (2015).

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  • Social behaviour
  • Insect-plant interactions
  • Facilitation
  • Uresiphita reversalis
  • Lupinus diffusus