An altitudinal comparison of caterpillar (Lepidoptera) assemblages on Ficus trees in Papua New Guinea

Vojtech Novotny, Scott E. Miller, Yves Basset, Lukas Cizek, Karolyn Darrow, Borenke Kaupa, Joseph Kua, George D. Weiblen

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48 Scopus citations


Aim: This analysis of caterpillar (Lepidoptera) beta-diversity between tropical lowlands and highlands attempts to separate the effects of between-site (1) turnover of herbivore species on particular host plants, (2) changes in host use by herbivores, and (3) turnover of plant species on changes in herbivore assemblages. Location: Two rain forest areas 130 km and 1700 altitudinal metres apart were studied in Papua New Guinea: one in the lowlands (100 m a.s.l.) on the northern coast of the island and one in the central New Guinean cordillera at 1800 m a.s.l. Methods: The analysis is based on caterpillar feeding records obtained by quantitative sampling and rearing of caterpillars from four Ficus species studied in the mountains and 21 Ficus species and 62 plant species from other genera and families studied in the lowlands, including three Ficus species studied in both areas. Results: Only 17% of species feeding on Ficus in the highlands also occurred in the lowlands. These species represented 1-46% of individuals in caterpillar assemblages on particular Ficus hosts. Widespread species included both Ficus specialists and generalists feeding on numerous plant families. Some of the Ficus specialists changed their preferred host species with altitude. High species turnover was not explained by changes in the species composition of host plants with altitude as lowland and montane assemblages feeding on the same Ficus species showed high turnover. Despite the rarity of widespread caterpillars, the lowland and montane Ficus assemblages were remarkably similar in their dominance structure, species richness, host specificity, generic composition and familial composition. Main conclusions: Ficus-feeding Lepidoptera assemblages between tropical lowlands and highlands are characterized by substantial species turnover not explained by altitudinal changes in the composition of the vegetation. Further, species-rich plant genera can support caterpillar assemblages with relatively low beta-diversity compared with species-poor genera as caterpillars can switch their host preferences from one congeneric host species to another along an altitudinal gradient. Closely related plant species can thus represent a broad, continuously distributed resource along such gradients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1303-1314
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2005


  • Beta diversity
  • Cryptic species
  • Elevation gradient
  • Ficus
  • Host specificity
  • Lepidoptera
  • Malesia
  • Rain forest
  • Species diversity
  • Species turnover


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