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Origin of an insect outbreak: escape in space or time from natural enemies?

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Initiation of insect outbreaks is poorly understood, and may involve sporadic events that temporarily release insect populations from predation or parasitism. While studying a declining outbreak of the western tussock moth (Orgyia vetusta) on bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus), we witnessed the onset of a new tussock moth outbreak, separated by 1,000 m in space and 2 months in phenological timing from the original population. This new population underwent explosive growth for 2 years and then collapsed because of a massive die-off of lupines. We tested whether during its growth phase, this new outbreak benefited by escaping in either space or time from the natural enemies attacking the original population. In experimental populations on single bushes, we compared predation and parasitism at the sites of the new and the old outbreak. At the site of the old outbreak, we compared predation and parasitism early and late in the season. Parasitism was significantly lower and population growth significantly higher at the new outbreak site than the old one. Neither seasonal timing, predator exclusion, nor their interaction significantly affected survival at either site. Thus the new outbreak appeared to escape in space from parasitism. These results corroborate our previous experimental findings, which suggest that as predicted by theory, the interaction between the tussock moth and its parasitoids can produce large-scale spatial patterning in population densities.

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Maron, J., Harrison, S. & Greaves, M. Origin of an insect outbreak: escape in space or time from natural enemies?. Oecologia 126, 595–602 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1007/s004420000558

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  • Altered caterpillar phenology
  • Escape from parasitoids
  • Insect outbreak
  • Rapid population growth
  • Tussock moth caterpillar